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Chinese hackers are determined to ‘wreak havoc’ on U.S. critical infrastructure, FBI director warns

Published: January 31, 2024, 8:10am

WASHINGTON (AP) — Chinese government hackers are busily targeting water treatment plants, the electrical grid, transportation systems and other critical infrastructure inside the United States, FBI Director Chris Wray will tell House lawmakers on Wednesday in a fresh warning from Washington about Beijing’s global ambitions.

Underscoring the threat, the Justice Department and FBI announced just before the hearing that they had disrupted a botnet of hundreds of U.S.-based small office and home routers hijacked by the Chinese state hackers in the operation to sow the malware.

Wray will say that there’s been “far too little public focus” on a cyber threat that affects “every American,” according to a copy of prepared remarks that he is to give before the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party.

“China’s hackers are positioning on American infrastructure in preparation to wreak havoc and cause real-world harm to American citizens and communities, if or when China decides the time has come to strike,” Wray will say.

The comments align with assessments from outside cybersecurity firms including Microsoft, which said in May that state-backed Chinese hackers have been targeting U.S. critical infrastructure and could be laying the technical groundwork for the potential disruption of critical communications between the U.S. and Asia during future crises.

The following month, Mandiant said that suspected state-backed Chinese hackers had used a security hole in a popular email security appliance to break into the networks of hundreds of public and private sector organizations globally.

Beijing has slammed the U.S. for its “almost-daily” and “huge amounts” of cyber attacks against Chinese government offices. “China is the biggest victim of cyber attacks,” Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, said last year.

Wray and other senior U.S. officials have for years been sounding the alarm not only about the Chinese government’s hacking prowess but about Beijing’s determination to steal scientific and industrial research from American businesses. China has called those accusations groundless even as multiple criminal indictments have laid out detailed evidence.

“Today, and literally every day, they’re actively attacking our economic security, engaging in wholesale theft of our innovation, and our personal and corporate data,” Wray said.

On Tuesday, testifying before the same committee, Leon Panetta, who served as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency and the defense secretary in the Obama administration, said he believed that the Chinese agents had “planted malware within our own computer networks” and warned that the Chinese government would use artificial intelligence to spread disinformation.

The committee, chaired by Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, was established last year with a mandate of countering China, kicking off with a primetime hearing. The Chinese government has lashed out at the committee, demanding that its members “discard their ideological bias and zero-sum Cold War mentality.”

On Wednesday, U.S. officials said the cyber threat they had disrupted involved Chinese hackers, known as Volt Typhoon, who had been using the botnet to stealthily infect U.S. critical infrastructure. They did so beginning in December and after obtaining search-and-seizure orders in a Texas federal court. The officials said the owners of those routers would be contacted by their internet service providers.