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Monday, January 30, 2023

Evanina: Combating China’s ‘Existential’ Cyber, Influence Threats Requires Post-9/11 Intensity

Battling in “the new frontier” of malign foreign influence requires finding ways to fill “a vast gaping hole” in helping Americans identify vulnerabilities and influence ops “every day living in technology but also with elections in the future,” the former director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center said, adding that the Department of Homeland Security could fill that domestic engagement role.

Bill Evanina told the Senate Intelligence Committee at an Aug. 4 hearing that “the holistic and comprehensive threat to the United States posed by the Communist Party of China is an existential threat, and it is the most complex, pernicious, aggressive, and strategic threat our nation has ever faced.”

The private sector and academia “have become the geopolitical battle space for China” as leader Xi Jinping “has one goal: to be the geopolitical, military, and economic leader in the world, period.”

“He, along with China’s Ministry of State Security, People’s Liberation Army, and United Front Work Department, drive a comprehensive and whole-of-country approach to their efforts to invest, leverage, infiltrate, influence, and steal from every corner of the United States,” Evanina said. “…Economic security is national security. Our economic global supremacy, stability, and long-term vitality is at risk and squarely in the crosshairs of Xi Jinping and the communist regime.”

Evanina noted that it is estimated 80 percent of American adults “have had all of their personal data stolen” by China while “the other 20 percent, just some of the data.” The economic loss last year from China’s activities in intellectual property and trade secrets is somewhere between $300 billion and $600 billion.

“If we do not alter how we compete with awareness of China’s malign methodology and one-sided practices, we will not sustain our global position as the world leaders from tomorrow’s emerging technology down to our creative ideations,” he said. “We must create a robust public-private partnership with real intelligence sharing while at the same time staying true to the values, morals, and rule of law which made America the greatest country in the world.”

From a cybersecurity perspective, China “possesses persistent and unending resources to penetrate our systems and exfiltrate our data, or sit dormant and wait, or plant malware on a critical infrastructure for future hostilities.”

“At the same time, the insider threat epidemic originating from the Communist Party of China has been nothing short of devastating to the United States corporate world,” Evanina continued. “Additionally, the Communist Party of China strategically conducts malign influence campaigns at the state and local level of the United States with precision. These efforts must be exposed and mitigated. To effectively defend against China and compete effectively, we must put the same effort into this threat as we did to combat terrorism the past 20 years.”

Evanina, a member of HSToday’s editorial board, stressed that the threat to the United States comes from the ruling Communist Party and not the Chinese people. “Chinese nationals or any Chinese person or Chinese ethnicity here in the United States or around the world are not a threat. They should not be racially targeted in any manner whatsoever,” he said. “This is a threat pertaining to a draconian communist country with an autocratic dictator, who is committed to human rights violations and stopping at nothing to achieve its geopolitical goals.”

Former Deputy National Security Advisor Matt Pottinger, a distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, told senators that “assembling dossiers on people has always been a feature of Leninist regimes, but Beijing’s penetration of digital networks worldwide, including using 5G networks … has really taken this to a new level.” He added that Evanina’s testimony “makes plain that Beijing has stolen sensitive data sufficient to build a dossier on every single American adult and on many of our children, too, who are fair game under Beijing’s rules of political warfare.”

“Newer to the Communist Party’s arsenal,” he added, “is the exploitation of U.S. social media platforms.”

“Over the past few years, Beijing has flooded U.S. platforms with overt and covert propaganda, amplified by proxies and bots. And the propaganda is focused not only on promoting whitewashed narratives of Beijing’s policies, but also increasingly on exacerbating social tensions within the United States and other target nations,” Pottinger said. “The Chinese government and its online proxies, for example, have for months promoted content that questions the effectiveness and safety of our Western-made COVID-19 vaccines. There’s been some recent research by the Soufan Center that also found indications that China-based influence operations online are now outpacing Russian efforts to amplify some conspiracy theories.”

Pottinger said that U.S. social media companies “have the technological know-how and resources to take a leading role in exposing and tamping down shadowy influence operations online, and the U.S. government should partner more closely with Silicon Valley companies in this work.”

In February, NCSC stated that for years China “has collected large healthcare data sets from the U.S. and nations around the globe, through both legal and illegal means, for purposes only it can control.” Among the most notorious examples of the illegal means was the 2015 hack “in which data on some 78.8 million persons was stolen from Anthem’s computer networks, including health identification numbers, names, Social Security numbers, employment and income data and other information.”

Asked why China is harvesting this data, Anna Puglisi, the former National Counterintelligence Officer for East Asia and a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, told senators that China “has amassed the largest genomic holdings of anywhere in the world.”

“One of the most important questions in the next generation of both medicine and also biological research is the genotype to phenotype — so, understanding what genes do. And so access to that kind of data, both their own and from other places in the world, gives them an advantage in figuring out some of those problems,” Puglisi said. “We know from their central government policies and programs they have emphasized the importance of next-generation medicine and that is a huge focus for them.”

“When we look at what they’ve accumulated in the last decade, I’ll point to Equifax, 150 million Americans, all their financial data has been taken by China,” Evanina said. “I would say that it’s unnecessary for China to procure or buy our data when they can come in and take it for free, because of our lack of cybersecurity defenses here provide an open door for them to take through spearfishing or other vectors to get into our systems and take our data.”

“With respect to DNA and genomics, they’ll use front companies like BGI, which is a company around the world, to set up stations to collect COVID samples and do fertility clinics. And every single time you do that, you’re giving away all your data to that node of their company, which as we said before, is now beholden to the Communist Party,” he added. “So, as you provide genetics, blood typing, or any kind of COVID test, it’s going to possibly go to the Chinese Communist Party, which is why we must protect what we do here on our soil from companies like Quest and other diagnostic companies, which are in every single town, from being procured by the Chinese government.”

Puglisi stressed that “it’s important to remember the multifaceted ways that China targets our technology and how different the systems are.”

“As we move forward, we need to think about what is the desired outcome of the efforts across the board with technology acquisition and how do we mitigate some of these activities,” she said. “And design policies and programs in addition to the ones that we already have that get at how do you deal with a non-rules-based entity.”

Evanina called for looking at a change in “the construct for partnering with private-sector industry and technology to be able to build coalitions” with government entities.

“China is going to be China and they’re going to double down,” he said. “We have to make a decision in America: Do we want to change the way we operate?”

Bridget Johnson
Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a terrorism analyst and security consultant with a specialty in online open-source extremist propaganda, incitement, recruitment, and training. She hosts and presents in Homeland Security Today law enforcement training webinars studying a range of counterterrorism topics including conspiracy theory extremism, complex coordinated attacks, critical infrastructure attacks, arson terrorism, drone and venue threats, antisemitism and white supremacists, anti-government extremism, and WMD threats. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15 and a private investigator. Bridget is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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