U.S. Feds Are Launching a Hack Back Squad

U.S. Feds Are Launching a Hack Back Squad

The U.S. says it’s punching back in the digital cold war over emerging technologies with a new “Disruptive Technology Strike Force.”

“Our goal is simple but essential — to strike back against adversaries trying to siphon off our best technology,” a deputy attorney general said.

The strike force, a joint initiative created by the Department of Justice and the Commerce Department reportedly, will focus on combating “adversaries” attempting to steal crucial U.S. tech secrets and attack supply chains. DOJ officials say the new agency will use a combination of “intelligence and data analytics,” to detect early warning of signs of cyber threats and, hopefully, prevent rival nations from “weaponizing data” against the U.S. The strike force will operate in 12 metropolitan regions spread out across the U.S. and include experts from the FBI and Department of Homeland Security. Intellectual property is most often stolen through cyberattack, making the Disruptive Technology Strike Force something of a “hack back” squad.

“Advances in technology have the potential to alter the world’s balance of power,” assistant Secretary for Export Enforcement Matthew S. Axelrod said in a statement. “This strike force is designed to protect U.S. national security by preventing those sensitive technologies from being used for malign purposes.”

The agency says private sector technologies related to AI, biosciences, and advanced manufacturing equipment and materials can be co opted by adversaries for “disruptive” purposes that can, in turn, threaten U.S. security. All this advanced tech, the agency claims, could theoretically be used to improve weapons calculations, improve foreign intelligence decision making, or potentially create “unbreakable encryption algorithms.” China, Iran, Russia, and North Korea were singled out as key countries of concern.

Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco elaborated on the new agency during a speech at the Chatham House research institute in London this week, saying the emerging technologies and ideas being stolen today could be used in “very frightening ways tomorrow.” Some of the greatest threats here involve datasets and software that contain potentially sensitive information. Though Monaco didn’t specifically mention TikTok by name, she hinted at it and said there’s a good chance the Chinese government could access data from Chinese owned firms if they want to.

Part of that striking back could reportedly entail leaning further into proactive effects to reach out and “target illicit actors” before they get a chance to make off with valuable secrets. Monaco, according to Bloomberg, said the U.S. government is already taking action to detect and deter bad actors in addition to actively “disrupting cyber-attacks.”

“Today, autocrats seek tactical advantage through the acquisition, use and abuse of disruptive technology: innovations that are fuelling the next generation of military and national security capabilities,” Monaco said. “The ability to weaponize data will only advance over time, as artificial intelligence and algorithms enable the use of large datasets in new and increasingly sophisticated ways.”

The Department of Justice and Commerce Department did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s requests for comment.

The potential upside

The new “Strike Force” comes on the heels of growing calls from many conservatives, and an increasing number of Democrats, for the federal government to take a tougher stance again tech and IP theft. A bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report released last year estimated the U.S. may be losing up to $US600 ($833) billion from global IP theft every year. The FBI, meanwhile, estimates cyber attacks and malicious cyber activity may have cost U.S. businesses over $US6.9 ($10) billion in losses in 2021. Those total losses, CNBC notes, were up a staggering 64% compared to the year before. If successful, the strike force could potentially stem some of that bleeding and refocus mitigation efforts in the private sector.

“Our nation now faces a dramatically different threat landscape than it did even a couple of decades ago,” Virginia Democratic Senator and Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Mark Warner said late last year. “Today’s foreign intelligence threats are not just obviously targeting the government…but are increasingly looking at the private sector to gain technological edge over our key industries.”

The Biden administrator has made it clear in recent months it wants to appear tough on China, particularly when it comes to technology. In October, Biden’s Commerce department issued sweeping new restrictions on exports to China of semiconductors, chip designs, chip software, and other high tech equipment. The measures, a direct extension of previous actions from the Trump Administration, were the clearest effort yet by Biden to block off Chinese access to the next generation of crucial tech

The Centre for Strategic & International Studies, a Washington think tank, colorfully described the new prohibitions on China as, “strangling with an intent to kill.”

The potential pitfalls

The Biden admission’s aggressive stance towards tech theft and new Strike Force might prevent some important technology from making its ways overseas, but it also simultaneously risks making already fought international relations even worse. A Pew survey related last year found that 82% of U.S. adults said they viewed China unfavorably, a figure up 6% points from just one year prior. It’s unclear how creating inter-agency organisations directly tasked with targeting other countries will help temper those opinions.

The agency stated intent to strike back again and “target illicit actors” could also have long-term unintended consequences. Efforts by the DOJ or Commerce Department to launch their own proactive or retaliatory attacks against illicit foreign actors risks potentially spiraling into larger tit-for tat cyber campaigns with devastating consequences. Properly attributing the exact origins of cyberattacks is also notoriously difficult as attackers often route their attacks though other machines. That means retaliatory attacks led by the U.S. strike force could risk hav to contend with unintended collateral damage.