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High-Tech Spy Games Have US Revamping Its Strategy

By Jeff Seldin February 10, 2020

Rapidly advancing technology and an explosion of new adversaries is forcing the United States to change the way it is fighting back.

The nation's new counterintelligence strategy, unveiled Monday, will no longer focus on specific enemies, and instead find ways to better defend the country's vulnerabilities.

National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) Director William Evanina described the new strategy as "a paradigm shift," focused on "key areas where foreign intelligence entities are hitting us hardest, and where we need to devote greater attention."

In another break from the past, the new counterintelligence strategy is counting on more help both from the private sector and the public.

"With the private sector and democratic institutions increasingly under attack, this is no longer a problem the U.S. government can address alone," Evanina said. "It requires a whole-of-society response involving the private sector, an informed American public, as well as our allies."

Report updates 2016 strategy

The new 11-page document updates the previous strategy from 2016, and unlike its predecessor, names key U.S. foreign intelligence adversaries. It is a list that includes familiar foes, from countries such as Russia, China, Iran, Cuba and North Korea, to terror groups such as Lebanese Hezbollah, Islamic State and al-Qaida.

It also warns of more amorphous, but still significant, threats from "hacktivists, leaktivists and those with no formal ties to foreign intelligence services."

The release of the new strategy comes the same day U.S. officials charged four Chinese military officers with one of the largest data breaches in U.S. history.

Justice Department officials said the Chinese military hackers used a vulnerability to break into networks belonging to credit reporting giant Equifax, gaining access to the personal data of nearly half of all Americans.

Goal is to undermine U.S.

But the new counterintelligence strategy sees such gambits as just a start, with actors like China and others increasingly looking to undermine U.S. critical infrastructure, like the electricity grid, as well as supply chains that "underpin government and American industry."

"Their efforts likely are aimed at influencing or coercing U.S. decision-makers in a time of crisis by holding critical infrastructure at risk of disruption," the strategy warns, adding that even weapons platforms could be put at risk.

Counterintelligence officials are likewise concerned that adversaries such as China are looking to do more than simply steal intellectual property, which has cost the U.S. billions of dollars.

Foreign intelligence entities "have embedded themselves into U.S. national labs, academic institutions and industries," the new strategy warns, saying they seek to "influence and exploit U.S. economic and fiscal policies and trade relationships."

Another key area of concern is information warfare, where countries such as Russia, China and Iran have been aiming to undermine confidence in democratic institutions, sow division in U.S. society and weaken U.S. alliances.

Expect attacks to increase

The new counterintelligence strategy also warns that as part of these operations, foreign entities have been working to "influence and deceive key decision-makers, alter public perceptions and amplify conspiracy theories."

The strategy also cautions that such threats are likely to accelerate, as access to technologies like artificial intelligence, quantum computing, nanotechnology and drones will make attacking the U.S. easier.

"Foreign threat actors have become more dangerous because with ready access to advanced technology, they are threatening a broader range of targets at lower risk," the strategy warns.

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