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Experts Urge Agencies to Harness AI in Countering Cyberthreats

Former national security officials said emerging tech and collaboration will be key to combatting threats to critical infrastructure.

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William Evanina testifies in front of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in 2022
William Evanina testifies in front of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in 2022. Photo Credit: U.S. Senate via YouTube

Federal leaders urge agencies to leverage artificial intelligence and enhance partnerships with private sector and international allies to bolster efforts to counter Chinese-affiliated cyberthreats against U.S. critical infrastructure, they said during a House Oversight Select Committee Hearing on Countering the Cyberthreat from China last week.

“We have to be more aggressive as a country, as an administration and working in partnerships to attribute these criminal entities as what they are,” said former Director of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s National Counterintelligence and Security Center William Evanina at the hearing. “They’re proxies for a state-sponsored organization that we know is the Communist Party of China (CPC).”

Evanina added that the new battle space for CPC’s activities focuses on the U.S. private sector, critical infrastructure, academia and research agencies, preparing to disrupt power supply, transportation, communication networks and food and water supply at any given moment.

“Countless cyber breaches, insider threats and affairs penetrations into our critical infrastructure have been widely reported,” Evanina said. “The CPC’s crippling strangles hold to so many critical aspects of our supply chain and what results is domestic vulnerabilities that we have not seen in generations, if ever.”

Former National Security Agency Cybersecurity Directorate Director Robert Joyce said AI development will give the U.S. a strategic edge in defense and reduce the risk of a zero-day exploit.

“They want to slow the U.S. armed forces’ ability to mobilize and deploy in times of crisis and they want to sew societal panic at the time of their choosing,” Joyce said. “There is a simple description for their intent: domestic terrorism.”

In addition to military and strategic goals, CPC-affiliated cybercriminals have targeted American intellectual property at a massive scale.

“It is currently estimated that the economic loss from the theft of intellectual property from the Communist Party of China is nearing $600 billion per year … that equates to approximately $6,000 per American families of four after taxes,” Evanina said. “China’s ability to strategically obtain our intellectual property and trade secrets is like nothing we have ever witnessed before.”

Joyce highlighted the critical need for allocating resources toward infrastructure to replace outdated hardware because CPC approaches are based upon finding flaws in obsolete equipment and technology.

“The U.S. cybersecurity industry has the ability to find and defeat these [CPC] activities, but it’s going to take a combination of both the public efforts, the private efforts, as well as the targeted entities to remove some of their outdated legacy IT to be safe,” Joyce said.

Committee member Rep. Gerry Connolly also addressed a report from the Center for Security and Emerging Technology. “By 2025, Chinese universities will produce more than 77,000 STEM Ph.D. graduates per year, compared to approximately 40,000 in the U.S.,” he said. “For our country to compete effectively with China, we need to implement the National Cyber Workforce and Education Strategy’s recommendations to bolster our cyber workforce and cyber faculty pipeline.”

Understanding the severity of the siege, maintaining technological edge in cutting edge fields — like AI and quantum computing — and widening the talent pipeline to fill cybersecurity job vacancies are essential to sustain a heightened state of cyber defense, Evanina said.

“We must approach this existential threat with the same sense of urgency, leadership, spending and strategy as we have for the past two decades in successfully preventing and deterring terrorism,” Evanina said. “We are in a slow, methodical, strategic, persistent and enduring event, which requires a degree of urgency of government action and corporate awareness.”

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