All four of the United States’ main global adversaries are investing heavily in offensive cyber capabilities and are more likely to use digital attacks to gain a strategic advantage, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told lawmakers Tuesday.
That assessment underscores how the United States is far more vulnerable in cyberspace than on the battlefield, in the air, or at sea, where it remains superior to its adversaries.
As a result, the cyberattack capabilities of China, Russia, Iran and North Korea are “growing in potency and severity” and “threatening both minds and machines in an expanding number of ways,” Coats told the Senate Intelligence Committee during an annual hearing on worldwide threats.
“As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, we expect these actors to rely more and more on cyber capabilities when seeking to gain political, economic and military advantages over the United States and its allies and partners,” Coats said.
He described all four nations in written testimony as capable of launching cyberattacks against critical infrastructure such as energy or electrical systems, which could cause, at least, temporary disruptions to American life.
Moscow, in particular, “is mapping our critical infrastructure with the long-term goal of being able to cause substantial damage,” according to the testimony.
Here are four big takeaways from the hearing:
1. Elections are still a target.
Russia, which launched a hacking and disinformation operation to undermine the 2016 presidential election, remains interested in conducting similar operations during the 2020 election, FBI Director Christopher Wray warned.
What’s more, “other countries are taking a very interested eye in that approach,” Wray said.
The U.S. government has distributed $380 million in election security grants to states since Russia’s 2016 election operations and the Homeland Security Department has helped states with vulnerability scans and cybersecurity advice. Many election systems remain vulnerable to hacking, however, according to independent tests.
2. China is the real threat to watch.
Much of the governmental and intelligence focus of the past two years has been on the threat of Russian hacking and disinformation campaigns, but China poses a greater long-term strategic threat, Wray said.
Chinese digital theft of intellectual property, which declined significantly after a 2015 agreement between President Barack Obama and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, has rebounded dramatically in the fast four years, Wray said, calling China “the most significant counterintelligence threat we face.”
The FBI is conducting economic espionage investigations in “virtually every one” of its 56 field offices Wray said, and “almost all of them lead back to China.”
Intelligence leaders and senators also focused on the telecommunication giant Huawei during the hearing, which officials have warned could be a platform for Chinese digital snooping. Congress banned Huawei from government contracts last year and the White House is considering an executive order barring the company from U.S. systems entirely. The Justice Department also indicted Huawei officials this week for allegedly evading U.S. sanctions on Iran and stealing robotic technology from T-Mobile.
“It seems to me they have to decide: They’re either going to be a worldwide telecommunications company or an agent of the Chinese government,” Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) said of Huawei. “They can’t be both.”
3. The shutdown’s making it harder to recruit top talent.
The Intelligence Committee’s ranking Democrat Mark R. Warner (Va.) fretted during the hearing that the partial government shutdown that concluded Friday could make it far more difficult for the FBI and other intelligence agencies to recruit top talent.
The shutdown forced FBI cyber agents to work without pay and hampered numerous cyber investigations.
“If we cannot guarantee that people who work for the United States government aren’t going to be used as hostages for either side of a political debate, then I think our ability to recruit and retain will go down dramatically,” Warner warned.
The FBI is “still assessing the operational impact of the shutdown,” Wray said, though he described the shutdown as an “incredibly negative and painful experience” for FBI agents and their families. He did not say what effect it might have on recruiting and retention.
4. It’s the big four adversaries – with an asterisk.
Intelligence leaders focused almost exclusively during the hearing on cyber threats posed by Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, rather than cyber threats posed by terrorist groups or nations with less advanced cyber capabilities.
That tracks with conventional wisdom in recent years that the sort of large scale cyberattacks that would cause significant disruption to U.S. life or even deaths are beyond the capabilities of existing terrorist organizations.
Coats’ written testimony merely warned of terrorists launching distributed denial of service attacks or defacing Web and social media sites.
The report does warn, however, that foreign criminal groups could launch cyber strikes that disrupt the health care, financial or emergency service sectors “based on the patterns of activities against these sectors in the last few years.”
The intelligence community is also increasingly seeing “nation states enlisting the help of criminal hackers, which is a form of outsourcing that makes it even more of a menace,” Wray warned.
Original report can be found on The Washington Post.