Cyberwarfare / Nation-State Attacks , Fraud Management & Cybercrime

Advanced Tech Fuels Authoritarian Threats, US Intel Warns

China and Russia Strain an 'Increasingly Fragile Global Order'
Advanced Tech Fuels Authoritarian Threats, US Intel Warns
U.S. intelligence agencies warn that the United States faces an increasingly fragile global order. (Image: Shutterstock)

Authoritarian countries are seizing on technological advances to sway the global balance during a time of increased geopolitical fragility, U.S. intelligence agencies warned in an annual threat assessment.

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"An ambitious but anxious China, a confrontational Russia, some regional powers, such as Iran, and more capable non-state actors are challenging long-standing rules of the international system as well as U.S. primacy within it," the agencies said.

Technologies such as generative artificial intelligence and biotechnology have high potential for shifting power away from its traditional bases to cutting-edge sources in a system characterized by unintended consequences, says the report, published by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Those unintended consequences range from "rampant deepfakes and misinformation to the development of AI-generated computer viruses or new chemical weapons."

"The nature of strategic competition today revolves as much about not only traditional military power, but around nontraditional tools and the ability to harness emerging dual-use technologies," said Sen. Mark Warner, the Virginia Democrat who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, during a Monday hearing on the threat assessment.

Cyberthreats - also asymmetric threats since attacking costs less than defending - remain a danger, especially Chinese cyberespionage, the report says.

"It is clear that they are going to be relentless to intend to steal intellectual property," Air Force Gen. Timothy Haugh, head of the National Security Agency and Cyber Command, told the Senate panel.

Much of the report discusses China, which is making a bid for technological superiority to support economic, political and military goals. The threat assessment cites reporting that says Beijing-owned asset manager China Reform Holdings Corp. in 2023 planned to raise at least $13.78 billion for investments into AI, advanced semiconductors and biotechnology.

"Chinese AI firms are already world leaders in voice and image recognition, video analytics, and mass surveillance technologies," the report says.

Warner during the hearing dubbed China a "techno-authoritarian behemoth" that uses government subsidies and intimidation to become an "unprecedented challenge."

China's cyber activity is hardly confined to espionage. The FBI earlier this year disrupted a botnet maintained by a Beijing-run cyberespionage group with the codename Volt Typhoon that was used to target critical infrastructure operators (see: How Long Will FBI's 'Volt Typhoon' Router Interdiction Stick?).

Neither is China the only country to look for a technological edge. Russia also uses AI to create disinformation, targeting "individuals in warzones and unstable political environments" with deepfakes that Moscow is working to ensure could fool experts.

Russia intends to influence the outcome of the upcoming U.S. presidential election, and Kremlin influence actors "have adapted their efforts to better hide their hand, and may use new technologies, such as generative AI, to improve their capabilities and reach into Western audiences."

Iran may also attempt similar actions in U.S. elections this year. During the 2020 midterm elections, Iranian cyber actors attempted to obtain voter information, sent threatening emails to voters and disseminated disinformation about the election.

"The same Iranian actors have evolved their activities and developed a new set of techniques, combining cyber and influence capabilities," the assessment says.

The assessment also warns that governments will continue to deploy intrusive digital tools such as commercial spyware, in many cases to conduct transnational repression of nationals residing in other countries, including the United States.

"There are former government officials in this country no longer in office who require 24-hours-a-day security because Iran is trying to kill them inside the United States," said Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who co-chairs the committee.

At least 74 countries contracted with private companies to obtain commercial spyware between 2011 and 2023.

About the Author

Mihir Bagwe

Mihir Bagwe

Principal Correspondent, Global News Desk, ISMG

Bagwe previously worked at CISO magazine, reporting the latest cybersecurity news and trends and interviewing cybersecurity subject matter experts.

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