China’s intelligence services and related hackers are engaged in a “massive, sophisticated” program to steal information as part of a technology theft campaign larger than all other foreign adversaries combined, according to FBI Director Christopher A. Wray.
Additionally, Chinese intelligence agents, including professional officers, government officials and co-opted Americans, are all part of a plan to obtain valuable American proprietary technical know-how to support the ruling Communist Party regime, Mr. Wray said in a speech in California on Monday night.
The China threat today “reached a new level — more brazen, more damaging than ever before — and it’s vital that all of us focus on that threat together,” the FBI chief said. He noted that more than 2,000 FBI investigations are focused on Chinese efforts to steal U.S. information and technology.
“There’s just no other country that presents a broader threat to our ideas, innovation and economic security than China,” he said. “The Chinese government steals staggering volumes of information and causes deep, job-destroying damage across a wide range of industries, so much so that we’re constantly opening new cases to counter their intelligence operations about every 12 hours.”
In some of his most extensive comments on the Chinese campaign, Mr. Wray, noting the FBI’s role in battling the Soviet Union during the Cold War, said the primary adversary for the U.S. now is with China.
“Today, we in the United States and the Western world find ourselves in a very different struggle against another global adversary: the Chinese Communist Party,” he said. “There are some surface-level similarities between the threat posed by the Chinese government and the historical threat of the Soviet Union. The Chinese government also rejects the fundamental freedoms, basic human rights and democratic norms we value as Americans.”
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Unlike with the Soviet Union, U.S. firms are heavily invested in China’s economy, and Beijing dispatches large numbers of students to elite U.S. universities. China also commands a far greater financial power and a more dynamic economy than the Soviet Union had before its collapse in 1991, Mr. Wray said.
He said Beijing is using its global reach and market power “to steal and threaten rather than to cooperate and build.”
“That theft, those threats, are happening right here in America literally every day,” he said.
The threat is not just economic; it also poses a challenge to American freedom, the FBI chief said.
China’s state-controlled media provided no immediate response to Mr. Wray’s remarks.
Neal Ziring, technical director of the National Security Agency’s cybersecurity directorate, seconded the FBI chief’s warnings. He said Tuesday that Chinese threats in cyberspace are “huge.”
“The Chinese government has a large number of folks that are dedicated to doing this, spread across multiple elements of their government,” Mr. Ziring said during an online meeting of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance. “And they are very aggressive at what they do.”
The Chinese operations are targets of U.S. intelligence agencies, including the National Security Agency, as well as private-sector security companies, he said. But more needs to be known about Chinese cyber-espionage tradecraft to better counter the threat, he said.
Asked about knowledge of Chinese hacking activities, Mr. Ziring said, “We have some good insights, but we always like to have more.”
The Chinese government uses multiple avenues of attack, often in seemingly nonthreatening ways, analysts say.
For example, President Xi Jinping’s “Made in China 2025” plan targets 10 areas where China seeks to be a technological and market world leader in robotics, green energy production and vehicles, aerospace, pharmaceuticals and other industries.
Chinese spies “throw every tool in their arsenal at stealing the technology to succeed in those areas,” Mr. Wray said. “Here in the U.S., they unleash a massive, sophisticated hacking program that’s bigger than those of every other major country combined.”
The technology collectors operate from most major cities in China and often join forces with cybercriminals whom the FBI chief described as “cyber mercenaries.” He cited the example of a group of Chinese cybercriminals associated with the Ministry of State Security, the civilian spy agency, which he said stole “terabytes” of data from hundreds of companies.
“They’re not just hacking on a huge scale but causing indiscriminate damage to get to what they want, like in the recent Microsoft Exchange hack, which compromised the networks of more than 10,000 American companies in a single campaign alone,” he said.
Chinese intelligence officers support those efforts by targeting the same information, exploiting “scores of co-optees” — people who are not technically Chinese officials but take part in intelligence operations and identify sources, providing cover and communications for spy operations. The human spying networks seek to obtain secrets in nontechnical ways.
China’s government also invests in partnerships with U.S. companies that will give proxies supporting Beijing inside access to valuable technology.
“Sometimes they just wave enough money to get what they want, but often they also conceal which companies they actually control or use companies they don’t literally own but instead can control through embedded Chinese Communist Party cells,” Mr. Wray said.
Disguising the deception
One goal of the Chinese covert operations is to disguise their technology acquisition efforts from American companies and the U.S. government. The case in Ohio of Chinese intelligence officer Xu Yanjun, recently convicted of economic espionage, highlights what Mr. Wray said is an example of efforts to steal aviation-related technology.
The FBI said Mr. Xu was engaged in getting proprietary information on an advanced aircraft engine produced by General Electric and a foreign joint venture. Mr. Xu recruited company insiders with access to sensitive data who assisted MSS hackers operating from inside China to target the same data. He also exploited his relationship with a senior information technology official to plant malware in a joint venture laptop.
As a result, the Chinese government was able to steal technology related to a composite turbofan blade technology unique to GE and is now working to produce a copy of the engine.
The operation also involved the use of the social media business platform LinkedIn, a favorite of Chinese intelligence, Mr. Wray said.
“Xu is just one Chinese intelligence officer working for an entire unit dedicated solely to stealing aviation secrets, which is just one of those 10 technology areas the Chinese government has prioritized for stealing,” he said.
Chinese government hackers also have obtained massive amounts of personal data on millions of Americans from hospitals, health insurance companies and credit card firms.
Mr. Wray said Mr. Xi’s promises in 2015 to halt the hacking of U.S. technology and supplying it to Chinese companies did not reduce the problem. “In the years since, they’ve hit ever more companies and workers,” he said.
Stolen data includes source codes from U.S. software companies, testing data and chemical designs from drug companies, and engineering designs from manufacturers.
“The common thread is that they steal the things companies can’t afford to lose, so the Chinese government’s economic theft campaign is not just unprecedented in its breadth, it’s also deeply damaging, undoing the labor, ideas and investments of decades, and leaving lives overturned in its wake,” Mr. Wray said.
China’s government also is targeting people inside the United States “for personal and political retribution,” Mr. Wray said. They include perceived enemies, refugees, dissidents and minority Uyghurs in western China who the State Department declared last year were victims of a government policy of genocide.
Beijing launched its “Fox Hunt” program in 2014 under cover of an anti-corruption drive but in reality “targets, captures and repatriates former Chinese citizens living overseas whom it sees as a political or financial threat,” he said.
More than 9,000 people have been forcibly repatriated as part of the Fox Hunt program, under which they are imprisoned or controlled by the government. The program was successful, Mr. Wray said, because much like Beijing’s economic espionage program, the Chinese involved disregard diplomatic norms and international law in grabbing victims.
Hundreds of people in America, primarily green card holders or naturalized citizens, are on the Fox Hunt target list.
The program is “the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the Chinese government’s transnational repression,” Mr. Wray said.
“For decades, the Chinese Communist Party has targeted, threatened and harassed U.S.-based Tibetans and Uyghurs, Falun Gong adherents, pro-democracy advocates and any others who question their legitimacy or authority,” he said.
Mr. Wray said the FBI is applying lessons learned from fighting terrorism to countering the Chinese government threat, using joint counterintelligence task forces around the country.
“The volume of criminal and threatening actions we see from the Chinese government is immense, but the good news is that our partners and allies these days are more alert to the danger than ever,” he said.
• Bill Gertz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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