Cyber-espionage, particularly from China, 'serious and growing threat,' US attorney general says

15 April 2019 9:37pm

9 April 2019. By Leah Nylen.

Cyber-espionage is "a serious and growing threat," the United States' top prosecutor told Congress today, asking for more money to upgrade and enhance the cybersecurity and investigative capabilities of the Justice Department. Attorney General William Barr said countering Chinese espionage was the "highest priority."

Barr's comments come as US prosecutors pursue alleged trade secret thefts and wire fraud charges against Chinese telecommunications company Huawei, and regulators around the world consider barring Huawei and ZTE from 5G networks because of their ties to the Chinese state and the possible implications for cybersecurity and espionage risks.

“The cyber threat is a serious and growing threat,” Barr told members of the House Appropriationa Committee in asking for a $70 million increase in funding to upgrade the FBI’s cyber capabilities. “In terms of emerging threats, we have a China initiative within the department because China, we think, poses a very serious threat to the United States in terms of economic as well as classical espionage.”

In January, the Justice Department filed two indictments against Huawei, China’s biggest smartphone maker. Prosecutors alleged that Huawei organized an effort to steal trade secrets from US telecom company T-Mobile.

In a separate case, federal prosecutors also accused the company and its chief financial officer of conspiring to evade sanctions on Iran.

Huawei is contesting both cases.

“We are very focused on … not just industrial espionage but use of nontraditional collectors that the Chinese are able to marshal within the United States by co-opting Chinese nationals who may be working in universities or laboratories,” Barr told members of Congress. “It’s a broad-gauge threat and probably our highest priority at this point in terms of dealing with counter-espionage.”

Earlier this year, Congress enacted a ban on the purchase of the company’s products by the federal government and its legion of contractors. Australia and New Zealand have also banned the Chinese telecoms companies Huawai and ZTE from taking part in the 5G rollout in their countries.

Earlier in the day, Chinese premier Li Keqiang — speaking in Brussels amid discussions with EU leaders — decried unequal treatment of Chinese companies, saying the government has never urged companies to steal data or engage in espionage.