WASHINGTON – FBI Director Christopher Wray warned Congress on Wednesday that Chinese hackers are preparing to “wreak havoc” on American infrastructure such as the electric grid and transportation systems.
“China’s hackers are positioning on American infrastructure in preparation to wreak havoc and cause real-world harm to American citizens and communities if and when China decides the time has come to strike,” Wray told the House Committee on the Chinese Communist Party. “We cannot afford to sleep on this danger.”
On Wednesday, the Justice Department announced that a court-authorized operation in December had disrupted a hacking group backed by the Chinese government that tried to disrupt “critical American infrastructure” using malware to conceal the origin.
Known as “Volt Typhoon,” the hacking group was the subject of a government advisory in May, which stated that the same techniques could be used worldwide. Citing the ongoing investigation, officials didn’t name the infrastructure targeted by the Volt Typhoon hackers.
The warnings from Wray and other federal cyber officials come at a time of heightened tension with the Asian adversary over military matters such as Taiwan’s independence and the origin of COVID-19, which spread from China. Some members of Congress want to ban TikTok, a Chinese social media company, for gathering intelligence about its users.
Other officials providing similar warnings about Chinese cyber threats included Harry Coker Jr., national cyber director at the White House; Jen Easterly, director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency; and Gen. Paul Nakasone, commander of the U.S. Cyber Command.
The threat, officials said, is that China might place malware in equipment such as water-treatment plants, electrical grids or transportation systems that could shut down the power supply and access to clean water.
“The People’s Republic of China poses a challenge unlike any our allies and nation have ever faced,” Nakasone said. “Defending against this activity is our top priority.”
The threats worried lawmakers of both parties. The committee chairman, Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., said the cyber threats aren’t targeted solely at the military, but also at economic and infrastructure.
“This is the cyber space equivalent of placing bombs on American bridges, water treatment facilities and power plants,” Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis. “The sole purpose is to be ready to destroy American infrastructure, which would inevitably result in chaos, confusion and potentially mass casualties. It’s outrageous.”
The top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois, said China’s goal is to prevent the U.S. from projecting power in Asia.
“This means we could suffer large-scale blackouts in major cities,” he said “We could lose access to our cell towers and the internet. We could lose access to clean water and fuel.”
Contributing: Aysha Bagchi