FBI director warns that Chinese hackers are preparing to ‘wreak havoc’ on US critical infrastructure – CNN

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FBI Director Christopher Wray on Wednesday warned that Chinese hackers are preparing to “wreak havoc and cause real-world harm” to the US.

“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 told the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party.

Though cyber officials have long sounded the alarm about China’s offensive cyber capabilities, Wray’s dramatic public warning underlines the huge level of concern at the top of the US government about the threat Chinese hackers pose to critical infrastructure nationwide. The head of the National Security Agency and other senior US officials also testified on Chinese cyber activity in front of the panel Wednesday.

Chinese government-backed hackers, Wray said, are targeting things like water treatment plants, electrical infrastructure and oil and natural gas pipelines.

The Chinese hackers are working “to find and prepare to destroy or degrade the civilian critical infrastructure that keeps us safe and prosperous,” Wray said. “And let’s be clear: Cyber threats to our critical infrastructure represent real world threats to our physical safety.”

The Chinese government has previously denied allegations of hacking efforts.

The hearing comes in the wake of a big push by US and Chinese officials to ease tensions in the relationship between the two superpowers. At a meeting in November, Chinese President Xi Jinping assured US President Joe Biden that China would not interfere in the 2024 US election, CNN exclusively reported on Tuesday. That assurance was reiterated by the Chinese foreign minister to Biden’s national security adviser this past weekend, sources told CNN. US officials will be closely watching to see if Xi keeps his word.

Asked about that assurance at the House hearing, Wray said: “China’s promised a lot of things over the years, so I’ll guess I’ll believe it when I see it.”

The focus of the hearing was not US elections but how Chinese hackers are allegedly burrowing in computer networks at ports, energy plants and other key infrastructure in the US.

“The truth is the Chinese cyber actors have taken advantage of very basic flaws in our technology. We have made it easy on them,” Jen Easterly, who leads the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, told lawmakers.

“Unfortunately, the technology underpinning our critical infrastructure is inherently insecure because of decades of software developers not being held liable for defective technology. That has led to incentives where features and speed to market have been prioritized against security, leading our nation vulnerable to cyber invasion. That has to stop,” Easterly said.

The FBI and Justice Department have previously stressed their focus on preventing malign campaigns by the Chinese government and hackers.

CNN has reported that in recent months, federal law enforcement has used a court order to allow the Justice Department to remove malicious code from, or otherwise protect hundreds of devices in the US that are at the center of the Chinese hacking campaign targeting sensitive US critical infrastructure. Nevertheless, the hackers are believed to be deeply entrenched in US infrastructure.

The move by the Justice Department and FBI is part of a broader, government-wide attempt to blunt the impact of a persistent Chinese hacking effort that US officials fear could hinder any US military response in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, CNN has reported. The hackers are believed to be using access to some of the devices to burrow further into sensitive critical infrastructure — things like ports and transportation networks.

Part of the problem facing US officials is a sheer numbers game. Wray reiterated Wednesday that he believes that China’s cyber operatives outnumber all FBI agents by at least 50 to 1.

And Gen. Paul Nakasone, the head of the National Security Agency, told lawmakers that kicking the hackers out of US critical networks is an ongoing concern.

“We need to have a vigilance that continues onward,” Nakasone said. “This is not an episodic threat that we’re going to face. This is persistent.”

Wray said Wednesday that China’s efforts extend beyond technology, warning that “they target our freedoms, reaching inside our borders, across America, to silence, coerce, and threaten our citizens and residents.”

This story has been updated with additional developments.

CNN’s Evan Perez contributed to this report.

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