House Intel Chair: Hackers are coming to get you

Josh Peterson Tech Editor
Font Size:

The Pentagon’s recent report to Congress accusing the Chinese government of cyberespionage against the U.S. military “underscores the urgent need for a cyber information sharing bill,” a top lawmaker said Tuesday.

The Pentagon’s report, which prompted a denial from Beijing, is the first time the defense department has publicly and directly accused China of stealing military secrets through the use of state-sponsored hackers.

Attempts to improve the security of nation’s computer networks, however, has been a battle all its own for both the federal government and businesses waiting for Washington to act.

“The threat from nation state cyber hackers is growing by the day,” House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers told the Daily Caller.

“Banks, financial institutions, newspapers, trade associations, major international businesses, no one is immune,” said Rogers, stating that the “cyber hackers from national states are relentless in their attacks.”

The stakes to secure cyberspace are high, but the game is a complex one.

Lawmakers often warn of a looming “digital Pearl Harbor” catastrophe when talking about cybersecurity, and speak of hackers disrupting physical systems connected to computer networks.

Last week, for example, U.S. officials confirmed that Chinese hackers had infiltrated the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ National Inventory of Dams database.

“The database contains sensitive information on vulnerabilities of every major dam in the United States,” reported the Washington Free Beacon.

The theft of digitally stored state and corporate secrets via cyberespionage also poses a very real security and economic threat.

The Chinese government has long been suspected of engaging in cyberespionage against the U.S. government, has been accused of stealing plans for top secret military drones.

In 2009, Chinese spies were accused of stealing plans for Lockheed Martin’s F-35 joint strike fighter since as early as 2007.

Beijing also accused the U.S. government of cyberespionage in 2010 — a charge that Washington denied.

Governments around the world — including the U.S. — are involved in a multi-billion dollar digital arms black market, purchasing information on software vulnerabilities from security research firms willing to sell their knowledge to the highest bidder.

On Monday, Microsoft confirmed that hackers were able to exploit a vulnerability in several versions of its Internet Explorer browser, allowing them to target the computers of U.S. nuclear researchers and European defense contractors.

“That’s an indication that the attackers may be collecting sensitive military information on behalf of a nation-state,” reported TechNewsDaily.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper warned the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in March that foreign governments were targeting U.S. systems with with this type of technology.

The Chinese are only one of many nations capable of committing various acts of aggression via cyberspace.

Despite the popularly-held notion that the country is technologically inert, North Korea is also a notorious aggressor in cyberspace, and has even targeted U.S. military units stationed in South Korea.

“This is yet another example that underscores the urgent need for a cyber information sharing bill,” Rogers said of the Pentagon report.

Rogers is the main sponsor of the controversial Cyber Intelligence and Sharing Protection Act, commonly called CISPA. The bill is intended to allow private companies to share cyber threat information with the Department of Homeland Security.

CISPA recently moved on for consideration in the Senate after passing the House with a 288-127 vote, despite receiving a veto threat from the White House due to privacy concerns.

President Obama signed a controversial cybersecurity executive order earlier this year focused on securing the nation’s “virtual” infrastructure, with the expectation that Congress would also pass cybersecurity legislation.

CISPA, first introduced in November 2011, has been the target of tremendous opposition from civil liberties advocates since its debut.

The bill’s opponents worry that further expansion of the federal government’s domestic surveillance powers would come at the expense of private citizens’ privacy rights.

Last week, former FBI counterterrorism agent Tim Clemente told CNN host Erin Burnett that the U.S. government is already recording and saving every digital communication sent in the U.S.

Clemente’s statement, however, runs contrary to statements from the federal law enforcement community.

Testifying before a House subcommittee in 2011, FBI General Counsel Valerie Caproni told members of the difficulty federal law enforcement was having engaging in real-time intercepts of the Internet-based communications of suspects.

The problem is only exacerbated for the government by service providers who either refuse to comply with an order in a timely manner, or lack the technical expertise necessary to make compliance possible, Caproni said.

She called it the “going dark” problem. She also stated that the agency’s state and local law enforcement counterparts lacked the resources to conduct electronic surveillance of Internet-based communications services.

This frustration has recently motivated the FBI to seek a reform to current wiretap law that would allow the agency to coerce service providers into compliance through fines, according to a report by The Washington Post.

The FBI declined The Daily Caller’s request for comment, instead referring The Daily Caller to Caproni’s testimony.

But Clemente is not alone in his statements about the alleged domestic surveillance capabilities of the federal government.

In December 2012 , former National Security Agency official William Binney pointed to the FBI’s investigation of retired General David Petraeus — the former head of the CIA — as proof that the FBI has access to the emails of everybody in the U.S.

Binney is one of several NSA whistleblowers who have offered testimony about the agency’s post-9/11 activities.

Mark Klein, a former technician at AT&T, exposed the telecommunications provider’s cooperation with the NSA when it installed equipment that routed copies of Internet-traffic through a facility in San Francisco to monitor Internet communications.

Klein came forward after The New York Times published a leak in 2005 that then-President Bush had ordered the NSA to illegally spy on the electronic communications of Americans “and others inside of the United States to search for evidence of terrorist activity.”

NSA chief Keith Alexander denied these allegations before Congress in 2012.

The NSA declined The Daily Caller’s request for comment, instead referring The Daily Caller to the FBI.

Follow Josh on Twitter