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US intelligence chief warns of alarming rate of cyber threats to national security

Director of US National Intelligence Daniel Coats (Photo by AFP)

The chief of US spy agencies has warned that cyber threats to US national security are “blinking red” with daily attempts to undermine America and not just at election time, accusing Russia, China and Iran of being top anti-US hackers.

US National Intelligence Director Dan Coats further claimed on Friday that hacking targets include American businesses, the federal government, the military, financial and academic institutions, critical infrastructure and even state and local governments, and pointed to Russia as the most aggressive foreign actor.

"The Department of Homeland Security and the FBI, in coordination with international partners, have detected Russian government actors targeting government and businesses in the energy, nuclear, water, aviation and critical manufacturing sectors," Coats said in a speech at the Washington-based conservative think tank, Hudson Institute.

He noted, however, that cyber threats against the US also originate from China, Iran and North Korea as well as what he described as criminal networks and individual hackers, according to an AP report.

Coats further underlined that focusing on possible election-related cyber attacks, including during the upcoming midterm polls in November, misses an important point, warning of the likelihood for a crippling cyber-attack on vital US infrastructure such as a power outage in the northeastern state of New England during winter or a cyber attack on banks that wipes out people's life savings.

"These actions are persistent. They're pervasive and they are meant to undermine America's democracy on a daily basis, regardless of whether it is election time or not," he emphasized.

The US intelligence chief also compared the current cyber threat with how American officials stated prior to the September 11, 2001 incidents that intelligence channels were "blinking red" with warning signs that a terror attack was imminent.

"Here we are nearly two decades later and I'm here to say the warning lights are blinking red again," Coats declared.

He went on to state that the US is not yet detecting the sort of electoral intervention in specific states and voter databases that allegedly took place during the country’s presidential election in 2016, but added: "However, we fully realize that we are just one click on a keyboard away from a similar situation repeating itself."

His remarks came shortly after the US Justice Department indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers accused of hacking into Democratic email accounts during the 2016 election and publishing the hacked information in the months leading to the polls.

Moscow, however, reacted to the indictment by reiterating its persistent rejection of Washington’s claims that the Russian state interfered in the US election.

Coats further insisted that despite public statements by the Kremlin to the contrary, US intelligence authorities continue to see individuals affiliated with Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA), based in St. Petersburg, generating new social media accounts masqueraded as those of Americans, according to the report.

He also asserted that the IRA, a so-called internet troll farm, then uses the fake accounts to drive attention to what he referred to as divisive issues within the US, the report added.

"We are seeing aggressive attempts to manipulate social media and to spread propaganda focused on hot-button issues that are intended to exacerbate socio-political divisions," Coats stressed.

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