The head of the FBI issued a warning Wednesday to cyber criminals at home and abroad in countries including China, saying feds “want to burn down their infrastructure” as offenders have become more dangerous.
FBI Director Christopher Wray spoke at Boston’s annual Cyber Security Conference at Boston College and emphasized teamwork between feds, academia and the private sector to tackle cyber threats from individual hackers and nation-state actors whose data breaches can leave millions of people exposed.
Four Chinese military members were charged in February in the 2017 Equifax hack that left personal data of 145 million Americans exposed.
“We don’t just want to keep individual cyber criminals at bay, we want to burn down their infrastructure,” Wray said.
The FBI chief named China as the most severe threat to American economic assets, information and innovations, calling China’s stealing of innovation and using it to compete with the U.S. “cheating twice over.”
In the last four months, defendants including a Harvard professor have been indicted on charges of improper relationships with China — students on university-sponsored visas allegedly attempting to steal medical laboratory and military information and a Harvard nanotechnology expert allegedly working with prominent Chinese research entities.
Joseph Bonavolonta, FBI Special Agent in Charge in Boston, declined to comment on ongoing China cases but said feds are “laser focused” on cyber crime activity within academia.
“It is something that we are having robust conversations with academia as well as private sector partners,” Bonavolonta said.
Wray hinted at the FBI’s reach in combating foreign actors specifically in Russia, Iran and China.
“One day they’ll slip up and when they do, we’re there,” Wray said.
Although he touted feds’ relationships with the private sector, Wray asked for help from companies who haven’t installed “back doors” to allow access to their own encrypted data to fight cyber crimes.
“We’re not advocating for back doors,” Wray said. “We’ve been asking for providers to make sure they themselves maintain some kind of access to the encrypted data they need so they can still provide it in response to a court order.”
Wray’s statement recalls the battle between feds and Apple in 2016 to unlock an iPhone related to a terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Calif., when James Comey was leading the agency.
Bonavolonta also briefly spoke on election security, saying “no major security incidents” were reported to the FBI Boston division after Super Tuesday voting in Massachusetts.
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