Congress Seeks Details on Spying Risks From Chinese Cargo Cranes

Date: Tuesday, April 4, 2023
Source: Wall Street Journal

WASHINGTON—Top lawmakers who oversee the Department of Homeland Security want to hold hearings and obtain access to classified and unclassified government documents that expose potential security vulnerabilities posed by dozens of Chinese-made cranes at American ports across the country.

It is “extremely worrisome” that about 80% of American port cranes use Chinese software that is manufactured by a Chinese company, said House Committee on Homeland Security Chairman Mark Green (R., Tenn.) in a statement. “On behalf of the American people, this Committee is demanding answers on the risks these cranes pose to U.S. cybersecurity and the resilience of our critical infrastructure, which is a core aspect of the homeland security mission.”

The demand for more information follows a Wall Street Journal article on March 5 that detailed for the first time some of the security concerns posed by the large cranes, which are made by state-owned Shanghai Zhenhua Heavy Industries, or ZPMC, in China and are used in most American ports. ZPMC has ties to the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA and, according to lawmakers, “participates in military-civil fusion.”

The cranes are equipped with Chinese-made software that could be used to surveil or manipulate port operations, U.S. officials said. No evidence has emerged that Beijing has used the cranes to conduct nefarious activity at any American ports, officials said.

Chinese officials have dismissed the concerns as paranoia and an attempt to obstruct trade and economic cooperation with China. Representatives of ZPMC haven’t responded to requests for comment.

The Homeland Security Committee wants to hold public and potentially closed-door hearings on the matter by April 18, officials said. It also wants Homeland Security documentation pertaining to security vulnerabilities, as well as documentation that show the risk assessment and mitigation efforts that are in place as directed by Congress in 2021. Other documentation requested includes how the U.S. Coast Guard operates with ports to mitigate cybersecurity risks and more.

U.S. maritime ports help facilitate $5.4 trillion worth of commercial and military goods annually.

“If an adversary exploits the operational technology system of these cranes, port operations could completely shut down, suspending all commercial activity which would also disrupt our nation’s military and commercial supply chains,” according to a letter from Mr. Green and Rep. Dan Bishop (R., N.C.), chairman of the subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations and Accountability, to the Homeland Security Department. “Any potential port shutdown could create catastrophic economic and security consequences.…These vulnerabilities could provide opportunities to near-peer nation-state adversaries, such as China, to cripple our economy from behind a computer screen.”

The letter, also signed by Reps. Andrew Garbarino (R., N.Y.) and Carlos Giménez (R., Fla.), comes as others in Congress have taken up the issue. Rep. Mike Gallagher (R., Wis.), who chairs a new House committee focused on China, visited the Miami port on Friday with Mr. Giménez, who introduced legislation last year to ban future U.S. purchases of Chinese cranes and encourage other manufacturers.

In an interview after the visit on Friday, Mr. Gallagher said he felt Miami and other ports had mitigated near-term concerns by using alternate software. He said he was in particular concerned about the longer term, and said he believed that if ZPMC improved on their 70% global market share, they could effectively put others out of business, and ultimately force ports to deal exclusively with the company.

“I left thinking this is a perfect microcosm of the challenge we face with China, which is to say, after decades of integrating ourselves economically, we now find ourselves with a dangerous dependency, and there’s no easy or overnight fix,” he said.

Port executives have said they work with government agencies to assess security vulnerabilities and have taken steps to alleviate potential threats. They have also pushed for broader U.S. government support for other manufacturers.

“China has subsidized crane manufacturing in a way that makes their cranes half the cost. To correct this imbalance, the U.S. should build out its reshoring tools to bolster its critical supply chains,” the American Association of Port Authorities said in statement.

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