China's cyber now aimed at infrastructure, warns CISA boss

Resilience against threats needs a boost

China's cyber-ops against the US have shifted from espionage activities to targeting infrastructure and societal disruption, the director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) Jen Easterly told an Aspen Institute event on Monday.

"PRC actors have been in the spotlight for years and years, the key difference here was for PRC actors the focus has been espionage," said [VIDEO] Easterly.

Easterly's definition of espionage includes intellectual property theft and "the greatest transfer of intellectual wealth in history."

"But what we are starting to see – and this was captured in the IC's annual threat assessment – was targeting that was less about espionage and more about disruption and destruction," she added.

The Intelligence Community (IC) threat assessment [PDF] states that in the event of a major conflict with the US, Beijing would "almost certainly" consider undertaking aggressive cyber operations against critical infrastructure and military assets – including pipelines and rail lines – delaying military deployment and inducing societal panic.

"This, I think, is the real threat that we need to be prepared for and to focus on and to build resilience against," said Easterly.

Given the "formidable nature of the threat from Chinese state actors" Easterly said she believes it will be very difficult for the US to prevent disruptions to infrastructure and therefore advocates resilience – in which her faith has been shaken recently. She cited reactions to the Colonial pipeline incident and China's high-altitude balloon as signs of declining societal resilience.

"I think we need to be prepared to respond, recover, learn from disruptions and move forward in such a way that we can continue to operate our critical services and networks and businesses, even under threat of Chinese state actors who want to hold that critical infrastructure at risk," said the director.

Beyond cyber security, Easterly sees hope in collaboration with China for the sake of preventing an AI-related apocalypse through regulation.

"If we can have conversations with our adversaries about nuclear weapons, I think we probably should think about having these conversations with our adversaries on AI, which after all in my view will be the most powerful weapons of this century," Easterly said.

She then noted that the difference was that nuclear weapons were created under the auspices of countries and their national security, whereas AI is being created by companies whose responsibility is to maximize profits for shareholders. ®

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