China tops FBI list of cyber spying, cyber crime threats
PLA Type-052 destroyer
Aggressive Chinese cyber attacks pose the most serious threat emanating from what the FBI’s new director calls “an evil layer cake” of dangers from foreign states, criminals and hackers.
FBI Director James Comey said in his first television interview he plans to reorient the FBI, currently focused on crime-fighting and counter-intelligence, and counter terrorism, toward thwarting digital threats.
“Cybercrime is becoming everything in crime,” Comey, a former federal prosecutor, told CBS’ “60 Minutes” Oct. 5. “Again, because people have connected their entire lives to the Internet, that’s where those who want to steal money or hurt kids or defraud go. So it’s an epidemic for reasons that make sense.”
Daily attacks on U.S. computer networks are too numerous to count, he said.
“I think of it as kind of an evil layer cake,” he said. “At the top you have nation state actors, who are trying to break into our systems. Terrorists, organized cyber syndicates, very sophisticated, harvesting people’s personal computers, down to hacktivists, down to criminals and pedophiles.”
Asked what countries are attacking from cyberspace, Comey said: “The top of the list is the Chinese.”
On May 1, the Justice Department indicted five People’s Liberation Army officers who were linked to cyber espionage against American corporations and a labor union. The case highlights China’s cyber attacks, Comey said.
“They are extremely aggressive and widespread in their efforts to break into American systems to steal information that would benefit their industry,” Comey said.
The data being stolen by Beijing hackers includes high-technology and trade secrets that are being used to support China’s government and industry.
Chinese cyber attacks are ubiquitous. “There are two kinds of big companies in the United States,” he said. “There are those who’ve been hacked by the Chinese and those who don’t know they’ve been hacked by the Chinese.”
Comparing Chinese cyber strikes to the work of a of “a drunk burglar” that have cost businesses “billions” in losses, the FBI chief said: “They’re kickin’ in the front door, knocking over the vase, while they’re walking out with your television set. They’re just prolific. Their strategy seems to be, ‘We’ll just be everywhere all the time. And there’s no way they can stop us.’”
The U.S. government, Comey says, is making progress in coordinating efforts to counter cyber attacks, an effort he described as like four-year-olds playing soccer in clumps of players.
“We’re about high school soccer now. We’re spread out. We pass well. But the bad guys are moving at World Cup speed. So we have to get better,” he said.
The Obama administration has adopted a passive approach to Chinese cyber attacks, a policy that has angered many in the private sector who favor a more pro-active, offensive oriented response.
Comey’s comments on Chinese cyber attacks, like those of other Obama administration officials, were limited to the criminal and intelligence aspects of the threat.
The Pentagon’s most recent annual report on the Chinese military, however, provides a different perspective. The report states that the cyber attacks from Beijing pose a strategic threat appear to be part of preparations for use in a future conflict.
China’s government and military in 2013 targeted numerous computer systems, including U.S. government networks.
“These intrusions were focused on exfiltrating information,” the report said. “China is using its computer network exploitation (CNE) capability to support intelligence collection against the U.S. diplomatic, economic, and defense industrial base sectors that support U.S. national defense programs.”
The information could benefit China’s defense industry, high-technology industries, policymakers’ interest in U.S. leadership thinking on key China issues, and military planners’ understanding of U.S. defense networks, logistics, and related military capabilities. The data “could be exploited during a crisis.”
China’s most advanced warship, the Type-052 guided missile destroyer, is believed by U.S. intelligence agencies to have benefited from long-standing Chinese military cyber espionage.
“The accesses and skills required for these intrusions are similar to those necessary to conduct computer network attacks,” the report said.
Comey said most Americans do not fully understand the dangers posed by cybercrime and cyber espionage.
“The internet is the most dangerous parking lot imaginable,” he said. “Folks are wanderin’ around that proverbial parking lot of the Internet all day long, without giving it a thought to whose attachments they’re opening, what sites they’re visiting. And that makes it easy for the bad guys.”
Cyber attacks through email fool computer users into opening doors to strangers, allowing malicious software that can take over computer and steal data, such as bank information.
— Bill Gertz
Oct. 6, 2014