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Feb. 25, 2021
Notes from the Pentagon

CIA to use AI against China

By Bill Gertz
William J. Burns, the veteran diplomat tapped to be the next CIA director, says he will follow through with the agency’s plans to adopt artificial intelligence technology to counter the large and aggressive activities of Chinese spies.

Mr. Burns, who appeared at a confirmation hearing before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on Wednesday, was asked in pre-hearing questions about the agency’s “quick adoption” of artificial intelligence to “help to mitigate the numerical advantages of the Chinese intelligence services, as well as increase efficiency and exposure for its workforce.”

The committee also said the use of AI at the CIA is critical because China poses a threat of “technological authoritarianism that threatens the U.S. technological dominance and our more principled use of technology.”

Mr. Burns said China is investing heavily in AI and machine learning technology to bolster its intelligence and counterintelligence capabilities. Artificial intelligence involves gathering large amounts of data and then exploiting the data with advanced computers and software.

The CIA “must meet this challenge by transforming how it collects, analyzes, and disseminates intelligence,” he said in his written answers. “I understand that CIA has devised an [artificial intelligence/machine learning] strategy to achieve this goal, is working closely with the leading AI/ML firms in the country, and will drive the adoption of AI/ML technologies across the [intelligence community].”

Members of the Senate committee have expressed concerns that the CIA’s traditional focus on secrecy and security over new technology will delay adoption of AI know-how.

Ashley Deeks, a University of Virginia Law School professor, noted that China‘s drive for total information awareness could hamper U.S. intelligence collection.

“If the Chinese government can recognize every person on the street and easily track a person’s comings and goings, this will make it even harder for foreign intelligence agencies to operate inside the country,” she stated on the blog Lawfare.

“Not only will U.S. and other Western intelligence agents be even easier to follow (electronically), but the Chinese government will also be able to identify Chinese nationals who might be working with Western intelligence services — perhaps using machine learning and pattern detection to extract patterns of life. China‘s facial recognition efforts thus facilitate its counterintelligence capacities,” she added.

The lawmakers’ written questions from the committee also disclosed a new threat to human spying operations overseas known as “ubiquitous technical surveillance” (UTS) measures.

The reference includes the masses of information obtained by nations like China from both U.S. government and private-sector networks that U.S. officials say is being used by Beijing’s counterintelligence services to identify American and other foreign agents.

China stole sensitive information on federal government officials in the Office of Management and Budget hack that began in 2013. Other major data breaches took place against the health care provider Anthem involving the theft of records on millions of Americans.

Mr. Burns said as CIA director he would launch a “multipronged, integrated comprehensive approach, leveraging all CIA elements to get ahead of the threat” posed by high-tech surveillance.

“I plan to engage my counterparts throughout the government, as well as our allies abroad, to share strategies and solutions for addressing how ubiquitous collection is exploited by our adversaries,” he said. “This will require CIA to adapt its tradecraft, generate smarter technology and properly leverages all available data.”

Chinese-based hackers carried out aggressive technology theft and espionage operations against U.S. targets last year despite the pandemic, according to a cybersecurity firm.

CrowdStrike stated in its annual report that the outbreak of the COVID-19 disease from Wuhan only slightly diminished Wuhan-based hackers from conducting operations. Other Chinese hackers conducted operations aimed at stealing American cutting-edge research for virus vaccines.

“China-based adversaries continued targeted operations throughout 2020 that largely aligned with historic focuses on espionage, intellectual property theft and surveillance,” the report said. “Chinese adversaries enhanced their cyber capabilities through ongoing tool development and sharing, while maintaining their status as one of the most prolific state-sponsored cyber actors on the planet.”

According to the report, computer network intrusions monitored by the company identified at least 11 Chinese adversaries and seven suspected activities originating from China. The hacking efforts aligned with information and technology development objectives outlined in the Chinese Communist Party’s 13th Five-Year Plan.

The operations focused on a wide range of targets with a strong emphasis on computer penetrations of organizations in the telecommunications, government, health care and technology sectors.

The hackers involved in telecommunications attacks were similar to those in 2019 and were dubbed “Wicked Panda,” “Circuit Panda” and “Phantom Panda.” In September, the Justice Department indicted seven people in China on charges in Wicked Panda cyberattacks including one that boasted of having links to the Chinese Ministry of State Security, the intelligence services.

The indictments covered over 100 companies in the United States and abroad, including software developers, computer hardware manufacturers, telecommunications companies, video game companies, social media firms, universities, think tanks and foreign governments.

The CrowdStrike report said the U.S. legal offensive had “relatively little impact” on Chinese hacking, noting that Wicked Panda cyberattacks resumed weeks after the September indictments.

The report warned that high-level military hacking from China against foreign military, defense, academic and think tank targets will continue in the coming months.

“China‘s cyber operators are also likely to continue enabling the widely reported human rights abuses against Tibetans and Uighur minorities, domestic and abroad, through aggressive surveillance measures including mobile device targeting, compromise of personal email accounts and devices, and ongoing access to upstream providers,” the report said.

Cui Tiankai, Beijing’s outspoken anti-American ambassador to Washington, will be leaving his post, according to a U.S. government source.

Mr. Cui, posted in Washington since 2013, has promoted Chinese propaganda themes in speeches, in television appearances and on social media and defended what the State Department has determined is genocide against ethnic Muslim Uighurs in western China.

“The real threat in Xinjiang, up until very recently, was very clear,” Mr. Cui, 68, told CNN on Feb. 8. “First, the threat of terrorism. There were thousands of terrorist attacks in Xinjiang, hurting and even killing thousands of innocent people from all ethnic groups, Han people, Uighur people and others. So people have a strong demand that their safety and security should be guaranteed. That’s what we have done in the last few years.”

Mr. Cui said he visited some of the camps, which he called training centers, where as many as 1 million Uighurs and other minorities have been imprisoned. The ambassador said the camps are meant to end poverty in addition to countering terrorism.

“I’ve been to Xinjiang myself, more than once in the last few years,” he said. “I have seen all these things with my own eyes. I even visited some of the vocational training centers. They are just like a campus. Not a labor camp, but campus.”

The BBC reported recently that Chinese authorities in Xinjiang have been engaged in systematic destruction of the Uighurs as a people and crimes have included systematic rape of women.

Tursunay Ziawudun, a Uighur victim who spent nine months in a Chinese concentration camp, told the news agency: “Their goal is to destroy everyone, and everybody knows it.”

The Washington Post last year published stories that ridiculed the idea that the coronavirus behind the global pandemic originated in a Wuhan laboratory linked to the Chinese military.

The newspaper, which has shifted sharply to the left under Amazon founder and owner Jeff Bezos, ran a Jan. 29, 2020, story with the headline “Experts debunk fringe theory linking China‘s coronavirus to weapons research.”

“Some of the speculation has centered on a virology institute in Wuhan, the city where the outbreak began,” the story read, adding “one fringe theory holds that the disaster could be the accidental result of biological weapons research.”

Fast-forward to Tuesday. The Post opinion page that day published an editorial calling for American spy agencies to release classified intelligence on the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), considered a potential source of the coronavirus outbreak.

The State Department released some intelligence on Jan. 15 revealing that several workers at the institute were sickened with COVID-19-like symptoms in the autumn of 2019, before the first known reported case of the disease in December 2019.

“Did the virus leap directly from an animal host in nature to humans, which many scientists believe is highly likely, or from an inadvertent leak or accident at a Chinese laboratory, possibly the WIV?” the Post editorial asked. “The answers will be important to prevent a future pandemic and must be pursued vigorously, even though China covered up the early stages of the pandemic and has advanced dubious theories to suggest it originated beyond China‘s borders.”

The State Department also revealed that the Wuhan Institute of Virology has conducted secret biowarfare research for the Chinese military — contrary to claims of institute officials that all work there was civilian.

“The truth matters, and the United States should not hide any relevant evidence,” the editorial said.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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