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The Biden administration is working to find Chinese malware it believes is hidden within networks that control power grids, communications systems, and water supplies that support U.S. military bases, The New York Times reported.
The detection of the malicious computer code has raised fears that Chinese hackers have inserted it to disrupt U.S. military operations in the event of a conflict, such as Beijing invading Taiwan.
One congressional official told The Times that the malware is basically “a ticking time bomb” that could allow China to slow or stop American military deployments or resupply operations by cutting the power, communications, and water at U.S. military bases.
U.S. officials fear the impact could be much more widespread, however, because that same infrastructure often supplies the homes and businesses of average Americans.
The first public indication of the malware reportedly came in May, when Microsoft said it had discovered unusual computer code in telecommunications systems in Guam, which has a large American air base, and in other places in the United States.
According to more than a dozen U.S. officials and industry experts who spoke with The Times, the Chinese malware campaign goes back at least a year before the May report. Likewise, the federal government’s effort to find the code and eliminate it has been underway for a while.
While officials acknowledge that they do not know the full extent of the code’s presence in networks around the world, they say that the Chinese effort appears broader than they had initially thought.
In several Situation Room meetings at the White House in recent months, senior officials from the National Security Council, the Pentagon, Homeland Security, and the nation’s intelligence agencies reportedly have grappled with the scope of the problem and with formulating a response.
Administration officials have also started to brief members of Congress, some state governors, and utility companies about the malware, according to The Times.
Within the Biden administration there is debate over whether the operation’s goal is to disrupt the military or civilian life more generally in the event of a conflict. Officials told The Times that searches for the code have focused first on areas with a large number of American military bases.
“The Biden administration is working relentlessly to defend the United States from any disruptions to our critical infrastructure, including by coordinating interagency efforts to protect water systems, pipelines, rail and aviation systems, among others,” Adam Hodge, acting spokesman for the National Security Council, told The Times in a statement Friday night. “The president has also mandated rigorous cybersecurity practices for the first time.”
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