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FBI warns Chinese hackers targeting US infrastructure after major cyberspying operation disrupted

US officials on Wednesday said they disrupted a sweeping Chinese cyber-spying operation that targeted critical American infrastructure entities to be used against America in a geopolitical crisis. The US has long warned against Chinese state-sponsored hacking, but Beijing rebuffs these claims.

Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee Washington Published on: February 01, 2024 14:31 IST
US, Chinese hackers, US infrastructure, FBI
Image Source : REUTERS (FILE) FBI Director Christopher Wray

Washington: Christopher Wray, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has warned that Chinese government-linked hackers are targeting critical US infrastructure to cause "real-world harm" to Americans, on the same day US officials announced they disrupted a major Chinese cyberspying operation. Wray made his remarks to a Select Committee on competition with China in the US House of Representatives.

According to Wray, Chinese hackers are targeting water treatment plants, the electric grid, oil and natural gas pipelines and transportation hubs. "They're not focused just on political and military targets. We can see from where they position themselves across civilian infrastructure, that low blows aren't just a possibility in the event of conflict, low blows against civilians are part of China's plan," he said.

The FBI director said the concerns were not linked to Chinese Americans or Chinese nationals living in the US as they are themselves targets of China's "aggression". His remarks come at a time of heightened tensions between the US and China over the status of Taiwan, China's rapid military build-up, economic and technological competition, and Beijing's human rights record.

Several reports suggested that Chinese President Xi Jinping told his American counterpart Joe Biden during a crucial meeting in November that Beijing would not interfere in the 2024 US presidential elections. The meeting saw a much-needed thaw in the strained relations between the two countries as they resumed military communications after a year.

"China has promised a lot of things over the years. So, I guess I'll believe it when I see it," said Wray at the congressional hearing. Wray has repeatedly claimed Beijing is trying to undermine the United States through espionage campaigns, intellectual property theft and cyberattacks.

US disrupts Chinese cyberspying operation

US officials said on Wednesday they disrupted a sweeping Chinese cyber-spying operation that targeted critical American infrastructure entities and could be used against the United States in a future geopolitical crisis. The joint operation conducted by the US Justice Department and FBI fished out malicious Chinese software from a network or "botnet" of hundreds of compromised US routers, according to both agencies.

Washington and its allies disclosed the Chinese campaign 'Volt Typhoon' in May 2023 when analysts at Microsoft found it had targeted everything from US telecommunication networks to transportation hubs. The US has scaled up efforts to counter digital intrusion efforts by rivals China and Russia to curb espionage from state-sponsored hacking.

"This operation disrupted the efforts of (People's Republic of China) state-sponsored hackers to gain access to US critical infrastructure that (China) would be able to leverage during a future crisis,” Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen of the Justice Department’s National Security Division said in a statement.

Last year, China dismissed the allegations of the US and its partners on Volt Typhoon as a "disinformation campaign", slamming Washington for its "irresponsible criticism" of Beijing. "The Chinese government has been categorical in opposing hacking attacks and the abuse of information technology," the spokesperson of China's embassy in Washington said, alleging in turn that the US was involved in hacking and "eavesdropping more than other countries."

It is unclear how many American devices have been infected by the Chinese campaign, but the US statement said the FBI was continuing to investigate. Most of the infected routers were made by the technology firms Cisco and Netgear and were "end-of-life" or older-generation devices that were not being updated with the latest security measures, officials said.

US adds list of companies working with Chinese military

Additionally, the US on Wednesday added more than a dozen Chinese companies to a list to highlight firms it says are allegedly working with Beijing's military to keep American technology from aiding China. These companies include memory chip maker YMTC, artificial intelligence company Megvii, lidar maker Hesai Technology and tech company NetPosa.

A spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Washington said China opposed the move and called it an abuse of state power, adding that it ran counter to the US' "alleged commitment to market competition and international fair trade." The move can be a blow to the reputation of the designated companies and represents a stark warning to US entities and companies about the risks of conducting business with them.

(with inputs from Reuters)

ALSO READ | China accuses America of 'provocation' after US warship sails through Taiwan Strait

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