The US government has launched an operation to fight a pervasive Chinese hacking operation that successfully compromised thousands of Internet-connected devices, two Western security officials and one person familiar with the matter said.
The US Department of Justice and the FBI sought and received legal authorization to remotely disable aspects of the Chinese hacking campaign, the sources said.
The administration of US President Joe Biden has increasingly focused on hacking, not only for fear nation states might try to disrupt the US election in November, but because ransomware wreaked havoc at US corporations last year.
The hacking group at the center of the activity, Volt Typhoon, has especially alarmed intelligence officials, who say it is part of a larger effort to compromise Western critical infrastructure, including naval ports, Internet service providers and utilities.
While the Volt Typhoon campaign initially came to light in May last year, the hackers expanded the scope of their operations late last year and changed some of their techniques, three people familiar with the matter said.
The widespread nature of the hacks led to a series of meetings between the White House and the technology industry, including several telecoms and cloud computing companies, where the US government asked for assistance in tracking the activity.
Such breaches could enable China to remotely disrupt important facilities in the Indo-Pacific region that in some form support or service US military operations, national security experts said.
Sources said US officials are concerned that the hackers were working to hurt US readiness in case of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
The justice department and the FBI declined to comment. The Chinese embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
When Western nations first warned about Volt Typhoon in May last year, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Mao Ning (毛寧) said the hacking allegations were a “collective disinformation campaign” from the Five Eyes nations, a reference to the intelligence sharing grouping made up of the US, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the UK.
Volt Typhoon has functioned by taking control of swaths of vulnerable digital devices around the world — such as routers, modems and even Internet-connected security cameras — to hide later, downstream attacks into more sensitive targets, security researchers said.
This constellation of remotely controlled systems, known as a botnet, are of primary concern to security officials because they limit the visibility of cyberdefenders that monitor for foreign footprints in their computer networks.
“How it works is the Chinese are taking control of a camera or modem that is positioned geographically right next to a port or ISP [Internet service provider] and then using that destination to route their intrusions into the real target,” a former official familiar with the matter said.
“To the IT team at the downstream target it just looks like a normal, native user that’s sitting nearby,” the official said.
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