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NSA seeks Chinese hackers who have burrowed into American critical infrastructure


One of the government's top cybersecurity experts says his agency is hunting for Chinese hackers who infiltrated America's critical infrastructure. He says this as he retires, and he spoke with NPR cybersecurity correspondent Jenna McLaughlin.

JENNA MCLAUGHLIN, BYLINE: In a conference room in the heart of the National Security Agency's heavily fortified Maryland campus, a small group of journalists gathered to speak to Rob Joyce. Joyce spent 34 years at the NSA. He's seen it all, from the early days of internet worms to the constant barrage of cybercriminals and nation-states launching cyberattacks. But one of his biggest concerns right now is China. In recent months, top national security officials like Joyce have started sounding a rare public alarm about Chinese hackers infiltrating American critical infrastructure. They've burrowed into systems in Guam, Hawaii and across the United States.

ROB JOYCE: From the beginning, it's been a broad campaign.

MCLAUGHLIN: The goal, he says, is to hide undetected until a key moment arrives. In the event of a conflict, like if China invaded Taiwan, those hackers could spring into action, disrupting American infrastructure from airports to the power grid to create chaos.

JOYCE: They want the American people distracted. They want leadership focused inward and dealing with crises here and not worrying about things overseas.

MCLAUGHLIN: American and Taiwanese officials have warned they're worried about an invasion as soon as 2026 or 2027. But first, the NSA needs to uncover all these hacking campaigns, eject the hackers and build backups and plans for being resilient in the event of an attack. There's still not much public data about what these hacking campaigns look like.

JOYCE: Well, I think we're not done with the efforts to uncover and eradicate those threats.

MCLAUGHLIN: The good news is Joyce doesn't think China will attack U.S. infrastructure on a whim.

JOYCE: We do think it's a pretty high bar - that it is reserved for major conflict, because I think they assess that we would treat things that impact our safety and security here in the U.S. pretty substantially.

MCLAUGHLIN: China is wary of provoking a U.S. response, but Beijing knows the U.S. system is riddled with vulnerabilities. Several weeks ago, cybercriminals crippled practically the entire American healthcare system by breaching a single IT company.

Jen McLaughlin, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jenna McLaughlin
Jenna McLaughlin is NPR's cybersecurity correspondent, focusing on the intersection of national security and technology.