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Feb. 13, 2020
Notes from the Pentagon

Trump bolsters targeting technology
President Trump on Wednesday signed an executive order aimed at strengthening U.S. infrastructure against the disruption of critical services like GPS.

Not mentioned by the White House in announcing the order is that the bolstering of precision, navigation and timing — or PNT — services will also greatly bolster the military’s capability to conduct precision-strike warfare.

The order is aimed at preventing an electronic disruption of the numerous systems that rely on accurate PNT, most notably the GPS navigation system. Civilian uses of PNT include traffic management and precision agriculture and in the future will be needed for driverless cars and drones.

Other critical infrastructures that rely on PNT include the electrical power grid, communications infrastructure and mobile devices, transportation, weather forecasting and emergency response.

Federal agencies are directed under the order to survey PNT vulnerabilities within one year.

“Because GPS signals and the signals of other countries’ global navigation and satellite systems have been susceptible to man-made and natural disruption, we must engineer our critical infrastructures to be resilient to disruption or manipulation of these signals,” a senior Trump administration official said.

“This action by the president will help to ensure that the United States maintains uninterrupted access to essential services that rely on PNT,” the White House said in announcing the executive order.

The measure reflects the growing threat to government, the military and society as a whole from electronic warfare and other electronic means such as an electromagnetic pulse, a nuclear blast or a solar storm. Military planners expect major electronic attacks against precision navigation systems like GPS satellites in the early stages of a conflict.

GPS is a critical link in conducting precision-strike warfare, as most advanced missiles rely on information provided by the satellites to guide missiles to specific targets, often with an accuracy of several feet.

China has multiple types of space weapons that could knock out GPS satellites in the early stages of a conflict including missiles, electronic jamming gear and cyberattack capabilities. A Chinese military report published several years ago said GPS satellites are vulnerable to electronic jamming through the telemetry, tracking and control system or TT&C.

“The purpose of jamming of the TT&C system of military satellites is to seize control of satellites and thereby paralyze the system,” said the report, “Satellite Navigation and Positioning: Rationale and Jamming.”

GPS satellites float around the globe in what is known as medium Earth orbit — about 12,550 miles into space.

A recent report by the National Institute for Public Policy said North Korea has used electronic means to disrupt navigation near the Korean Peninsula.

“The successful jamming of GPS signals would have the effect of disrupting timing of U.S. military operations and impairing the use of precision-guided weapons that rely on the GPS signal,” the report said.

GPS “spoofing” — intercepting accurate navigation signals and changing them before they reach ships, aircraft or ground systems — also is considered a danger in conflict. With sophisticated spoofing capabilities, a foreign adversary could cause ships and planes to crash and could lead ground forces into traps.

Four Chinese military hackers who were indicted on charges of stealing sensitive records on nearly more than 145 million Americans were able to exploit a security flaw in open-source software used by the credit agency Equifax.

“In a single breach, the PLA obtained sensitive personally identifiable information for nearly half of all American citizens,” said the indictment, noting that the information included names, birth dates and Social Security numbers, as well as some driver’s licenses and credit card numbers.

The massive data breach in 2017 was the latest in a string of high-profile Chinese hacking operations. Other major data thefts included the 2015 hack against the Office of Personnel Management that obtained nearly 22 million records of federal workers, including those with security clearances, and the hack of health care provider Anthem that netted Beijing’s spies some 60 million records.

The Justice Department announced Monday the indictments of Wu Zhiyong, Wang Qian, Xu Ke and Liu Lei, four PLA operatives working for the 54th Research Institute of the Chinese military. The research institute is part of the PLA General Staff Department, which is responsible for electronic and signals intelligence gathering.

The 54th is considered one of the PLA’s most important intelligence gathering centers, conducting research on communications and monitoring technologies. The institute developed China’s first digital satellite-communications ground station.

The hackers, said William Evanina, a U.S. counterintelligence official, were able to gain access to Equifax’s repository of data through what is known as a “zero day” exploit — a flaw in software that allowed penetration of the network.

Mr. Evanina, in Senate testimony, stated that the U.S. intelligence community worked to mitigate the threat posed by the zero-day flaw. The problem “could have impacted multiple [U.S. government] departments and agencies,” said Mr. Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center.

Once inside, the hackers began examining the network and then planting access points throughout several major systems. The hackers are believed to be in China, and the prospects of prosecuting them appear small. The indictment is part of a major Justice Department crackdown on Chinese hacking and technology theft.

Attorney General William Barr said the scale of the theft by the Chinese was “staggering.”

“This data has economic value, and these thefts can feed China’s development of artificial intelligence tools as well as the creation of intelligence targeting packages,” Mr. Barr said.

China, as it has in the past regarding its hacking operations, denied that it carried out the cyberattack.

Facing growing international resistance to its effort to prevent American allies from using Chinese telecommunications gear, the Trump administration appears to be finally releasing some secrets on Huawei Technologies‘ spying capabilities.

U.S. officials disclosed to The Wall Street Journal that Huawei can access mobile phone networks using “back door” access points in its routers and other equipment that are required by Chinese police and intelligence agencies. The intelligence about the back doors was kept highly classified and has been known for more than a decade.

The declassified information was used to lobby skeptical European governments and telecommunications providers not to use the Chinese company for its infrastructure.

Huawei gear comes with a secret ability to access networks remotely without letting the owner know about the capability. The ability to obtain covert access to customers or host-nation security agencies is kept secret, a senior official told the newspaper.

“We have evidence that Huawei has the capability secretly to access sensitive and personal information in systems it maintains and sells around the world,” White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien said.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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