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Nielsen: Cyber risks raise terrorism threat level as well

Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen told senators at an Oct. 10 hearing that globally pervasive internet connectivity not only makes the U.S. and its allies more susceptible to cyberattacks, it also makes it easier for terrorist organizations and transnational criminal groups to coordinate and recruit new followers, while leaving the country more susceptible to foreign influence operations online.

Nielsen also said that threats from nation-state adversaries like China, Russia, Iran and North Korea are at the highest levels since the Cold War, largely but not exclusively due to leveraging cyber to conduct espionage and influence operations and disrupt services.

Christopher Wray, director of the FBI, agreed, telling the committee in his opening statement that "virtually every national security and criminal threat the bureau faces is cyber-based or technologically facilitated."

Members of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee pressed Nielsen to square President Donald Trump's comments that China is seeking to interfere in the upcoming midterm elections with her statement last week that her agency has seen no indication that any foreign power is actively working to disrupt election infrastructure.

Nielsen said her comments were directly related to threats facing election infrastructure, such as the hacking of voting machines and election systems, while the president's comments referred to broader influence operations being carried out by Beijing.

"There's two threats we see from nation states … with respect to our elections. One is the attempted hacking or attempted disruption of the election infrastructure," said Nielsen. "The other is the much more widespread foreign influence or foreign interference campaign."

China is more focused on influencing American public opinion in favor of Chinese policies over the long term and is not targeting specific candidates or races, Bill Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, said last week at a conference hosted by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

Nielsen and Christopher Krebs, her top cyber official, have both said that activity levels targeting the 2018 midterm elections are well below where they were in 2016, while cybersecurity firms including FireEye have said they've seen no evidence that China is seeking to manipulate specific issues or shape electoral outcomes for next month's elections.

In the cyber arena more broadly, officials have highlighted the daunting threat posed by China, with Wray calling the nation "the broadest, most complicated, most long-term counterintelligence threat we face."

Crowdstrike, another cybersecurity firm, announced the same day that after a big drop-off in hacking activity directed at the United States following a 2015 bilateral agreement with the U.S., China has dramatically scaled up cyberattacks and economic espionage directed at Western industries.

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