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Justice Department targets threats to U.S. innovation, warns of China's "weaponization of data"

Posted at 8:33 AM, Feb 16, 2023
and last updated 2023-02-16 10:33:03-05

A new federal initiative dedicated to keeping America's technological advances out of the hands of foreign adversaries will be part of the Biden administration's growing strategy to combat growing threats from China, the Justice Department announced Thursday.

The Disruptive Technology Strike Force, an interagency partnership between the Departments of Justice and Commerce, will aim to target rival nations like China that seek to use American high-tech advances to undermine national security and upset the rule of law, according to Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco.

Speaking at the Chatham House, a British think tank, Monaco said the newly minted group will serve as the latest component in the Justice Department's effort to protect American technology and data.

"We will use intelligence and data analytics to target illicit actors, enhance public and private partnerships to harden supply chains, and we will identify early warning of threats to our critical assets," Monaco said.

To help combat these risks, U.S. officials are paying more attention to the ways in which foreign adversaries try to use investments to give them access to American technology and data. Monaco said the Biden administration is exploring ways in which federal regulators can monitor the flow of American money in foreign tech sectors and make sure those funds do not advance the national security interests of another nation.

The announcements were part of a larger discussion in which Monaco warned that nations like China and Russia are getting "more sophisticated, brazen and dangerous" in their work against American security. Russian criminals targeting public institutions like hospitals in the U.S. and China's exploitation of personal data, she said, are top concerns.

"The Chinese government is not just hacking to gather our data," Monaco said. "If a company is operating in China and is collecting your data, it is a good bet that the Chinese government is accessing it."

The sharp words from one of America's top law enforcement officials come amid rising tensions with China. Recently, the U.S. military shot down a Chinese spy balloon after it traversed much of the country, prompting the Secretary of State to cancel a meeting in Beijing. U.S. government agencies across the U.S. have also been banning the use of the social media platform TikTok on official devices.

In November, FBI Director Chris Wray told Congress that investigators have "national security concerns'" about the app, including fears that the "Chinese government could use it to collect data on millions of users."

Monaco on Thursday warned that China's weaponization of data could only become more insidious over time, telling the group gathered in London that the Chinese government requires companies doing business there to turn over the keys to their data.

"The data obtained today could be used in new and frightening ways tomorrow," she predicted. "I don't use TikTok and I would not advise anybody to do so," she added later.

The administration's goal, according to Monaco, is to keep countries like China from using American investment, technology and data against the American people. The Justice Department's newly announced strike force — just one of its many initiatives — will now work to identify early vulnerabilities, she said.

Last month, Attorney General Merrick Garland told a conference of mayors that the Justice Department is working to disrupt another threat to the American people originating in China: fentanyl.

Investigators, Garland said, are "disrupting the flow of precursor chemicals coming from the People's Republic of China to Mexico," where they are then used to craft the deadly drug and transported into the U.S.

Under pressure from senators at a congressional hearing on Wednesday, administration officials said they are working with international partners to push China to stem the tide of those toxic chemicals.

Monaco's remarks in London represent a tacit acknowledgment by the U.S. that it will have to collaborate with other nations, as she put it Thursday, if it wants to ensure it's "getting this right."

In an interview with "Face the Nation" last month, Sens. Mark Warner and Marco Rubio, the chair and vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said they are looking at more ways to take on China's predatory practices, including legislation targeting Chinese investment.

"The Chinese have found a way to use capitalism against us," Rubio said. "What I mean by that is the ability to attract investment into entities that are deeply linked to the state."

"I want to have an approach that says we need to look at foreign technology investments, foreign technology development, regardless of the country, if it poses a national security threat, and have some place that can evaluate this," added Warner.