NSA chief: Chinese cyber spies continue to improve — but haven't surpassed US

China has not yet surpassed the U.S. in conducting cyber espionage despite several successful hacks that have been publicly linked to Beijing, the head of the U.S.’s premier digital spy agency said Thursday.

“No. No. No,” Army Gen. Paul Nakasone, the outgoing director of the National Security Agency and the head of U.S. Cyber Command, answered during a discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington when asked if the U.S. had been eclipsed.

But, he added, the skills used by Chinese hackers and the scope of their online attacks continues to improve.

“Are they getting better? Yes.”

The comments come after a series of reports that China, which spent years pilfering American intellectual property, was responsible for a number of sophisticated hacks, such as breaking into the emails of a group of senior U.S. officials like Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and the country’s ambassador to China.

In May, Microsoft warned that a Chinese government espionage group had hacked into critical infrastructure in multiple locations, including the island territory of Guam, a key U.S. outpost in any conflict involving Taiwan — an incident that reportedly started a massive digital hunting effort for malicious code by the Biden administration.

And earlier this week it was reported that Beijing-backed operators had breached Japan’s classified networks.

Nakasone said he remains “very concerned” about issues the NSA and others made public earlier this year about China “living off the land,” embedding itself within the country’s critical infrastructure to utilize in the future.

“Why are they doing that? Why are they in our critical infrastructure? That's the thing that we are addressing today,” he said. “If you're in our critical infrastructure, it's not to collect intelligence.”

The four-star echoed the Pentagon’s recent rhetoric that China is the country’s “pacing challenge.”

“It is the generational challenge that we will address, our children will address, our grandchildren are going to address,” according to Nakasone, whose successor is currently caught up in a months-long political blockade in the Senate.

China is an adversary that is different from any other “I’ve seen in my three decades-plus in the Army,” he said.

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Martin Matishak

Martin Matishak

is the senior cybersecurity reporter for The Record. Prior to joining Recorded Future News in 2021, he spent more than five years at Politico, where he covered digital and national security developments across Capitol Hill, the Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence community. He previously was a reporter at The Hill, National Journal Group and Inside Washington Publishers.