China and cybercriminals are targeting American AI companies, FBI Director Wray says

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CEO Council Virtual Roundtable: National Security in the Age of Generative AI

American companies like Google, Microsoft, and OpenAI are currently driving the cutting edge of generative artificial intelligence development across the globe. However two of U.S.’s top national security leaders said that AI lead is under attack from foreign cybercriminals and nation-states like China.

“Eighteen of the 20 most successful AI companies in the world are American,” FBI Director Christopher Wray told CNBC’s Morgan Brennan during a CNBC CEO Council virtual roundtable on Tuesday. “You can bet your bottom dollar that foreign adversaries, especially the Chinese, are actively targeting that innovation, that intellectual property.”

Wray, who was joined at the virtual roundtable by General Paul Nakasone, commander of U.S. Cyber Command, said that generative AI is a “significant amplifier, both in terms of quantity and sophistication, of the threats that are already out there,” adding that AI tools are helping criminals “make their attacks more sophisticated, more credible, more pernicious.”

“Generative AI, in the world of cyberattacks, is what I would describe as taking kind of junior varsity athletes and making them varsity,” Wray said. “But we are rapidly approaching a stage where the varsity adversaries are going to be able to find enough value from generative AI to take their game to the next level.”

But while much of the discussion around AI in the cybersecurity space has centered on how AI is enhancing both attackers and defenders, Wray said the FBI is also focused on “defending American AI [research and development], American innovation in AI.”

Nakasone, who also serves as the director of the National Security Agency and chief of the Central Security Service, said adversaries of the U.S. are using AI capabilities developed by American companies, making protecting that intellectual property crucial.

FBI Director Christopher Wray testifies during a Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on October 31, 2023.

Mandel Ngan | Afp | Getty Images

“That tells me we have the lead in artificial intelligence; we want to maintain that lead,” Nakasone said. “This is our future; this is where we’re going to have a marked impact in terms of our economy, our national security, and other things.”

The FBI and the U.S. Cyber Command, a command in the Department of Defense focused on cyberspace, are working closely on operations against a variety of adversaries, whether that’s nation-states like China, Russia, Iran, or North Korea, as well as criminal groups and other foreign actors.

AI is set to play a key role in that defense, Nakasone said. In September 2023, the National Security Agency created a new entity called the AI Security Center to oversee the development and integration of AI capabilities within U.S. national security systems.

“We knew that we had to be able to do this, in terms of being able to provide insights to understand what tradecraft or what techniques [adversaries] are going to try to steal your intellectual property,” said Nakasone, adding that similar efforts across cybersecurity have been successful.

Both Nakasone and Wray stressed that as attackers and adversaries utilize these AI tools more, the best defense will be formed through partnerships, whether that is between government agencies like their own, the public and private sectors, and allies across the globe.

“That kind of partnership will beat what the Chinese bring to the table every day of the week,” Wray said.

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