US-China competition to field military drone swarms could fuel global arms race

By FRANK BAJAK
April 12, 2024

As their rivalry intensifies, U.S. and Chinese military planners are gearing up for a new kind of warfare in which squadrons of air and sea drones equipped with artificial intelligence work together like a swarm of bees to overwhelm an enemy.

The world’s only AI superpowers are engaged in an arms race for swarming drones that is reminiscent of the Cold War, except drone technology will be far more difficult to contain than nuclear weapons. Because software drives the drones’ swarming abilities, it could be relatively easy and cheap for smaller powers and rogue actors alike to acquire their own fleets of killer robots.

In this photo from the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service, British soldiers launch a drone during Project Convergence exercises at Fort Irwin, Calif., on Nov. 4, 2022. With tensions high over Taiwan, U.S. and Chinese military planners are readying themselves for a new kind of war where battleships, fighter jets and amphibious landings cede prevalence to squadrons of AI-enabled air and sea drones. (DVIDS via AP)

The unchecked spread of swarm technology “could lead to more instability and conflict around the world,” said Margarita Konaev, an analyst with Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology.

As the undisputed leaders in the field, Washington and Beijing are best equipped to set an example by putting limits on military uses of drone swarms. But their intense competition, China’s military aggression in the South China Sea and persistent tensions over Taiwan make the prospect of cooperation look dim.

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Online dump of Chinese hacking documents offers a rare window into pervasive state surveillance

By Dake Kang and Frank Bajak

Feb. 21, 2024

Chinese police are investigating an unauthorized and highly unusual online dump of documents from a private security contractor linked to the nation’s top policing agency and other parts of its government — a trove that catalogs apparent hacking activity and tools to spy on both Chinese and foreigners.

Among the apparent targets of tools provided by the impacted company, I-Soon: ethnicities and dissidents in parts of China that have seen significant anti-government protests, such as Hong Kong or the heavily Muslim region of Xinjiang in China’s far west.

The dump of scores of documents late last week and subsequent investigation were confirmed by two employees of I-Soon, known as Anxun in Mandarin, which has ties to the powerful Ministry of Public Security. The dump, which analysts consider highly significant even if it does not reveal any especially novel or potent tools, includes hundreds of pages of contracts, marketing presentations, product manuals, and client and employee lists.

They reveal, in detail, methods used by Chinese authorities used to surveil dissidents overseas, hack other nations and promote pro-Beijing narratives on social media.

The documents show apparent I-Soon hacking of networks across Central and Southeast Asia, as well as Hong Kong and the self-ruled island of Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its territory.

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FireEye CEO: Reckless Microsoft hack unusual for China

By FRANK BAJAK and NATHAN ELLGREN
March 9, 2021

RESTON, Va. (AP) — Cyber sleuths have already blamed China for a hack that exposed tens of thousands of servers running Microsoft’s Exchange email program to potential hacks. The CEO of a prominent cybersecurity firm says it now seems clear China also unleashed an indiscriminate, automated second wave of hacking that opened the way for ransomware and other cyberattacks.

The second wave, which began Feb. 26, is highly uncharacteristic of Beijing’s elite cyber spies and far exceeds the norms of espionage, said Kevin Mandia of FireEye. In its massive scale it diverges radically from the highly targeted nature of the original hack, which was detected in January.

“You never want to see a modern nation like China that has an offense capability — that they usually control with discipline — suddenly hit potentially a hundred thousand systems,” Mandia said Tuesday in an interview with The Associated Press.

Mandia said his company assesses based on the forensics that two groups of Chinese state-backed hackers — in an explosion of automated seeding — installed backdoors known as “web shells” on an as-yet undetermined number of systems. Experts fear a large number could easily be exploited for second-stage infections of ransomware by criminals, who also use automation to identify and infect targets.

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