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Justice Department Debuts Disruptive Technology Strike Force

Justice Department Debuts Disruptive Technology Strike Force

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The US says it is fighting back in the digital cold war over emerging technologies with a new Disruptive Technology Strike Force.

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

The Strike Force, a joint initiative by the Justice Departments and the Commerce Department, will reportedly focus on countering “adversaries” who are trying to steal key US technology secrets and attack supply chains. DOJ officials say the new agency will use a combination of “intelligence and data analysis” to detect early warning signs of cyber threats and hopefully prevent rival nations from “weaponizing data” against the regions that are spread across the US and include experts from the FBI and Department of Homeland Security. Intellectual property is most commonly stolen through cyberattacks, making the Disruptive Technology Strike Force a kind of “hackback” squad.

“Advances in technology have the potential to change the balance of power in the world,” Matthew S. Axelrod, assistant secretary for export control, said in a statement. “This task force is designed to protect U.S. national security by preventing these sensitive technologies from being used for malicious purposes.”

The agency says private-sector technologies related to AI, life sciences and advanced manufacturing equipment and materials can be misused by adversaries for “disruptive” purposes, which in turn can threaten U.S. security. All of this advanced technology, the agency says, could theoretically be used to improve weapons calculations, improve foreign intelligence agency decision-making, or potentially create “unbreakable encryption algorithms.” China, Iran, Russia and North Korea were named as countries of particular concern.

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Addressing the new agency during a speech at the Chatham House research institute in London this week, Assistant Attorney General Lisa Monaco said the new technologies and ideas being stolen today could be used in “very scary ways” tomorrow. Among the biggest threats here are records and software that contain potentially sensitive information. Though Monaco didn’t specifically mention TikTok by name, she did hint it, saying there’s a good chance the Chinese government could access data from Chinese-owned companies if they wanted to.

Part of that backlash could reportedly be continuing to rely on proactive effects to reach out and “target illegal actors” before they get a chance to make off with valuable secrets. According to Bloomberg, Monaco said the US government is already taking steps to detect and deter malicious actors, in addition to actively “disrupting cyberattacks.”

“Today, autocrats are seeking tactical advantage through the acquisition, use and misuse of disruptive technologies: innovations that are powering the next generation of military and national security capabilities,” Monaco said. “The ability to weaponize data will evolve over time as artificial intelligence and algorithms enable the exploitation of large data sets in new and increasingly sophisticated ways.”

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

The potential upwards

The new “strike force” follows growing calls from many conservatives and a growing number of Democrats for the federal government to take a tougher stance on technology and IP theft. A bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report released last year estimated that the US could lose up to $600 billion each year to intellectual property theft around the world. The FBI, meanwhile, estimates that cyberattacks and malicious cyber activity could have cost US companies over $6.9 billion in losses in 2021. Those total losses, according to CNBC, are up a staggering 64% year over year. If successful, the task force could potentially stem some of that bleeding and redirect containment efforts in the private sector.

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

The Biden administrator has made it clear in recent months that he wants to be tough on China, especially when it comes to technology. In October, Biden’s trade department issued sweeping new restrictions on the export of semiconductors, chip designs, chip software and other high-tech equipment to China. The actions, a direct extension of previous actions by the Trump administration, were Biden’s clearest effort to date to block Chinese access to the next generation of critical technologies

The Center for Strategic & International Studies, a Washington think tank, vividly described the new bans for China as “strangling with the intent to kill.”

The possible pitfalls

The Biden confession’s aggressive stance on technology theft and new strike forces could prevent some important technologies from making their way overseas, but it also risks exacerbating already contested international relations. A Pew poll conducted last year found that 82% of US adults said they view China negatively, up 6 percentage points from a year ago. It’s unclear how the creation of multi-agency organizations charged directly with attacking other countries will help temper these opinions.

The agency said it intends to hit back again, and “targeting illegal actors” could also have long-term unintended consequences. Efforts by the DOJ or Department of Commerce to launch their own proactive or retaliatory attacks against illegal foreign actors risk morphing into larger cyber campaigns with devastating consequences. Pinpointing the precise origins of cyberattacks is also notoriously difficult, as attackers often direct their attacks through other computers. That means US-led retaliatory attacks could risk dealing with unintended collateral damage.

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