U.S. officials are aggressively searching for malware that they say hackers from China have implanted into American infrastructure to disrupt U.S. military operations in the event that the communist nation launches an attack on Taiwan.
Officials said that the malicious computer code, which penetrated U.S. systems well over a year ago but was only detected by Microsoft in May, was especially troubling because its purpose was not traditional spying, i.e., information gathering. Microsoft and the U.S. government both said the malware came from China.
The malware was hidden “deep inside the networks controlling power grids, communications systems and water supplies that feed military bases in the United States and around the world,” The New York Times reported. It infected systems that impact not only the U.S. military but also U.S. citizens and the economy.
Officials said that while the effort to destroy the malware has been underway for months, they still don’t know how widespread it is.
Officials say there were two possible goals when China infected utility infrastructure that “serve both civilian populations and nearby military bases,” the Times reported. The malware has not been detected in classified systems.
One motivation could be to delay a U.S. response to an invasion of Taiwan, noting that a slowed response time of even a couple of days due to logistical issues could be the difference between China winning or losing. A second possible goal is to cause such chaos in the U.S. during their invasion that Americans would not care about what is happening in Taiwan.
Officials told the Times that the malware was “a ticking time bomb” and that it “raises the question of what, exactly, they are preparing for.”
Officials have reportedly exercised caution in determining how to remove the malware because any action from the U.S. could tip off China as to what the U.S. is able to detect and not able to detect. Doing so, the report said, could lead Chinese hackers to alter their cyberattacks targeting U.S. systems with more sophisticated software that could be harder to find.