SAN FRANCISCO – In case there was any doubt, FBI director Christopher Wray has made it clear Russia and China are considered among his agency’s top sources of cyber threats, along with Iran and North Korea.
During a keynote chat at the official opening at the annual RSA Conference here, Wray was asked if Russia still poses a threat to the U.S. election process and to the country in general.
“Yes,” Wray bluntly replied.
This of course comes after the Justice Department indicted 12 Russian military intelligence officials last summer for allegedly conspiring to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election
Wray added the FBI didn’t see a “material impact” on the election infrastructure during the 2018 mid-term elections from a foreign adversary in last election. But, he added, “what has continued virtually unabated and just intensified during the election cycle is this malign foreign influence campaign, especially in social media but lots of other techniques, to sew divisiveness and discord, to pit Americans against each other, to undermine our faith in democracy.
He expects that will continue up to the 2020 U.S. election.
As for China, “I would argue for too long this country has underfocussed on the counter-intelligence threat, which has a cyber dimention, that China poses. There is nothing like it … Of all the things that surprised me when I came back [from the private sector] was the breadth, the depth and the scale of the Chinese counter-intelligence threat … We have economic espionage investigations in all 56 [FBI] field offices that almost all lead back to China.”
Last fall, he noted, the U.S. indicted two people for either working for the Chinese government or being associated with its Ministry of State Security in stealing data from companies in a dozen countries in part by hacking service providers.
At the time Canada said it is “almost certain that actors likely associated with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) Ministry of State Security (MSS) are responsible for the compromise of several managed service providers [in Canada] beginning as early as 2016.”
Asked if allegations against China are part of a trade dispute, Wray replied, “not at all. This is not about trade or diplomacy, but rule of law … We’re going to follow the facts independently where ever they go no matter who likes it. And that means when we find somebody who has committed federal crimes against Americans or American businesses we’re going after them, and I don’t care what some foreign government has to say about it.”
His statements come as Western governments are increasingly worried about the possibility of foreign interference either directly in election processes – like tampering with voting machines or electoral lists — or by trying to cause social unrest through misinformation on social media.
On the other hand a Canadian editor recently argued there is more misinformation spread on Canadian social networks from citizens than outsiders.
Wray said the FBI leads a cross-government task force preparing to fight any foreign influence in the next election. The Trudeau government has formed a similar group. Both governments say they are working closely with social media firms to help them combat abuse of their platforms.
Wray was also asked the inevitable question about the FBI stance on the tech sector helping to get at encrypted communications used by adversaries. The agency, like the RCMP, is increasingly anxious about the number of devices and software solutions made to ensure their data is scrambled.
Although some U.S. police chiefs have called on tech companies to install backdoors so law enforcement and intelligence agencies can – with a judicial warrant – crack encryption, Wray took a softer tone.
“Not a week goes by where I don’t encounter across all of our programs some significant, sometimes insurmountable impediment (from adversaries) hiding with encrypted devices or encrypted messaging platforms,” he began. “It’s a public safely issue.”
“I get a little frustrated when people suggest we’re trying to weaken encryption. To be clear, those are not our words. we’re not trying to weaken encryption, we’re not seeking backdoors any more than the well-intentioned folks on the other side are trying to weaken public safety. But it is an issue that is getting worse and worse all the time.
“It can’t be sustainable for there to be an entirely unfettered space utterly beyond lawful access for criminals, terrorists and spies to hide … In private conversations with experts in cryptography I’m hearing there are solutions if people willing to put their heads together.”