- The FBI has repeatedly warned the US public about the threat posed by Chinese espionage.
- China stands accused of a vast array of acts of espionage, from stealing military secrets, to industrial proprietary information, down to personal information from individuals.
- Leaders of US government and industry have long exercised caution and kept away from Chinese products, but the public has yet to catch up.
- Avoiding Chinese tech, not bringing your own tech products to China, and using caution when interacting with Chinese nationals can make you a harder target.
The FBI has a clear message for the US public: Chinese society itself is a threat to the US due to its heavy engagement with espionage and influence campaigns.
FBI Director Christopher Wray said as much at a February Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, during which he said naive academics have allowed “nontraditional collectors” of intelligence to infiltrate the US’s revered “very open research and development environment” in universities.
While Chinese citizens have been pouring into US and Western universities and industries, China has seen an explosion in domestic technology, especially in its military and space sectors.
To be fair, all countries with the capability engage in spycraft, but the Chinese Communists don’t gather intelligence like the US does.
China’s society is not like the US’s. In China, everything belongs to the ruling Communist Party, including the military and intelligence services, and its people can be coerced into their service.
Beijing has gone to extreme lengths to police its people on even social interactions, establishing leverage over their citizens, even the ones living abroad. Chinese citizens in the US and Canada have reported threats being made to their families on the mainland when they speak up against the CCP.
The US has accused China of coercing foreign firms into technology transfer. The private sector, as it tries to break into China’s massive market, is filled with off-the-record horror stories of spying and theft of secrets.
Because of the clandestine nature of spycraft, it’s almost impossible to know if you’re the subject of Chinese espionage, but there are steps you can take to reduce the risk you face.
Based on insider accounts, here’s how you can protect yourself from suspected outlets of Chinese espionage as a US citizen.
Avoid Chinese tech
Bill Bishop, an author who has lived on and off in China for decades and writes the Sinocism newsletter for Axios, tweeted the following: “Entertaining to talk to Chinese engineers with experience with Huawei about whether or not Huawei installs back doors. Unanimous ‘Of course’ followed by ‘how naive are the foreigners who still doubt that.'”
New court documents filed in the US allege that ZTE, another Chinese phone maker, was set up with the express purpose of conducting international espionage.
With a camera, microphone, and the logins of its owners accounts, accessing the smarphones of US citizens would be a massive intelligence boon for any nation.
Public naivety comes up again and again in intelligence circles. In May, the US banned all Chinese-made smartphones from the Pentagon, saying devices from Huawei and ZTE “may pose an unacceptable risk to department’s personnel, information and mission.”
If the Pentagon is taking seriously the risk of espionage via Chinese-made phones, maybe savvy US citizens should follow suit.
Don’t bring tech to China
“If you have a security briefing” before heading to China for a company with sensitive information, “you would be told ‘do not take a laptop,'” Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project told Business Insider.
“I once got a security briefing or someone told me ‘do not leave the laptop in your room and take a shower, someone could walk in and download your information and be out,'” said Glaser.
Glaser said it’s common for foreigners staying in a hotel in China to return from the gym or a trip and find “people rummaging around their room.”
China has been “aggressive” about intelligence gathering from government and business officials “for years and years and years, and they are really good at it,” said Glaser.
“Any person who is really dealing with proprietary information, nobody takes a laptop, nobody writes an email. People who are really serious about security will take a burner phone, they would never take their own phone,” said Glaser.
Use caution with Chinese nationals
The Chinese Communist Party has extraordinary powers within its borders to detain and reeducate people over something as central and inoffensive as an ethnic or religious identity.
In 2014, the FBI issued a public service announcement warning against being a pawn for Chinese spies. US students are “coming back from an overseas experience saying unusual things happened, offers that didn’t make sense, for money, big favours, positions they really weren’t suited for. And we think a lot of those were pitches or recruitments,” the FBI said.
Naturalized Chinese citizens in the US been indicted countless times, with many being employed by Chinese firms to steal secrets across a broad swath of US industries. The FBI’s Wray warned in February specifically that Chinese “professors, scientists, students” all participated in intelligence gathering.
China is widely suspected of using cyber crime to steal US plans for the F-35 stealth jet, but other more civilian industries like agriculture and manufacturing are at risk too, according to experts.
Wray received considerable backlash for his comments from Asian-American civil rights groups who noted in a letter to Wray that “well-intentioned public policies might nonetheless lead to troubling issues of potential bias, racial profiling, and wrongful prosecution.”
But Wray stood firm in his analysis.
“To be clear, we do not open investigations based on race, or ethnicity, or national origin,” Wray told NBC News. “But when we open investigations into economic espionage, time and time again, they keep leading back to China.”
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