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US warns of Chinese hacking ring targeting infrastructure

January 31, 2024

US federal agencies said they broke up a ring of Beijing-backed hackers targeting critical infrastructure. FBI boss Christopher Wray said there is "far too little public focus" on the threat.

A neon pink keyboard
Officials said a Chinese hacking ring targeted US businesses and infrastructure Image: Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images

The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Department of Justice (DOJ) on Wednesday announced that they had jointly disrupted a Chinese hacking scheme targeting critical US infrastructure.  

US officials claimed state-sponsored Chinese hackers had hijacked hundreds of US-based small office and home office routers to create a network of internet-connected devices, or a "botnet."

"These cyber actors use this botnet to conceal the hacking of US and foreign critical infrastructure among other malicious cyber activities," said Sean Newell, deputy chief of the DOJ's National Security Division.

The FBI and DOJ received court authorization to conduct a search and seizure operation to remove malware from tainted routers last December. The US and allies first publicly disclosed the attack, which also targeted the US military, in May 2023.

There is great concern that groups such as "Volt Typhoon," which was disrupted, are laying the groundwork for a concerted attack on water treatment plants, the electrical grid, transportation systems and the like in the event of a conflict between China and the US. 

China has vehemently denied all accusations and says the US is conducting a disinformation campaign, contending that no one spies more than the US.

A spokesman for Beijing on Wednesday said, "The Chinese government has been categorical in opposing hacking attacks and the abuse of information technology."

Hackers threaten critical infrastructure

FBI boss Wray warns lawmakers of Chinese threat

On Wednesday, FBI Director Christopher Wray testified before the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, where he addressed the topic of China and its global ambitions.

Wray contended that "far too little public focus" has been put on a potentially grave cyber threat that affects "every American."

"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," read a statement submitted to the committee by Wray.

Beyond the immediate security threat posed by Chinese hackers, US officials such as Wray have warned of the threat of intellectual property theft especially as relates to scientific and industrial research.

"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," according to Wray.

On Tuesday, former CIA Director Leon Panetta told the committee he thought Chinese agents had likely "planted malware within our own computer networks," warning that Beijing would use artificial intelligence to spread disinformation.

China has denounced the Select Committee and its work, accusing its members of "ideological bias and a zero-sum Cold War mentality."

US-China: What’s behind the growing tensions?

js/wmr (AP, Reuters)