China electronic spying threat

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe met last week in Beijing. The delegation traveling on the E-4B plane with Mr. Mattis had to take extraordinary security precautions. (Associated Press) Photo by: Mark Schiefelbein


Defense Secretary Jim Mattis‘ recent visit to China highlighted the security dangers posed by sophisticated Chinese electronic spying in the capital of Beijing.

Security precautions for those traveling with the defense secretary were extremely tight during his June 26-28 visit.

To prevent Chinese spying through cellphones or laptop computers, the 10 journalists traveling aboard the secretary’s Air Force E-4B nuclear command plane, a militarized Boeing 747, were prohibited from bringing any electronic devices that were taken off the aircraft during the two-day visit back onto the plane. Anything that used wireless connectivity was deemed potentially vulnerable to Chinese hacking.

Security officials were concerned that China’s formidable electronic spies would plant viruses or other malware onto the cellphones and laptops, allowing remote spying aboard the aircraft.

The concerns were magnified because the E-4B is one of the more sensitive aircraft in the military’s inventory. The jets — four are currently deployed — are critical elements of nuclear command and control systems used by commanders to communicate with their forces during a nuclear crisis or conflict.

Gaining access to the electronics or communications of the command plane could allow the Chinese military to block or disrupt nuclear commands, or spy on nuclear command-and-control methods.

The Chinese are known to be targeting the military’s nuclear command and control networks for both intelligence-gathering and future cyberwarfare attacks. One novel electronic spying tactic is to secretly plant listening devices inside electronic key cards used to open hotel room doors.

Security officials traveling with Mr. Mattis required everyone who was issued hotel key cards in Beijing to leave all of them behind before boarding the aircraft on the way out of Beijing.

Chinese intelligence and security organs employ up to 15,000 electronic spies to spy on foreigners in China. High-profile visits by foreign officials like Mr. Mattis are high-priority intelligence targets for the Chinese, who in addition to electronic spying also engage in large-scale human surveillance.

China’s main electronic spy agencies are the civilian Ministry of State Security (MSS) and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Strategic Support Force, a relatively new agency that combined several PLA military spy units, including the human spying service called 2PLA and the cyberspy group 3PLA. Together, the MSS and Strategic Support Force conduct aggressive high-technology intelligence-gathering both in China and abroad.

Another PLA unit known as 4PLA specializes in electronic countermeasures and radar intelligence. As reported in this space last year, the 4PLA operates an entire Beijing hotel called the Seasons Hotel for its operations.

The tight security controls are a reflection of the new electronic spying environment and China’s formidable skills at stealing secrets and other valuable information through foreigners’ electronic devices.

Chinese intelligence continues to exploit its hack of some 21 million federal records at the U.S. executive branch’s Office of Personnel Management several years ago. The OPM cyberattack compromised sensitive personal information on millions of Americans who hold security clearances.

China also hacked the health care provider Anthem and stole some 78 million records, including those of government officials.

U.S. intelligence officials believe the Chinese are using the stolen data for high-technology, artificial-intelligence-driven spying operations.

Reporters and officials who were part of the official delegation traveling with Mr. Mattis were forced to bring “burner” cellphones for travel in China. The phones were used inside China and discarded before the delegation left the country.

Any laptop computers taken by reporters off the plane had to be abandoned in China or handed off to colleagues at local news bureaus. That process worked for those covering the secretary’s first visit to China for The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal.

Reporters without local bureaus in Beijing had to improvise or go without cellphone connectivity completely.

One reporter brought two laptops — one for use on stops before and after China and one for use solely in China. The laptop had to be dropped off at the reporter’s news bureau at the end of the trip.

However, getting the computer back to the United States could prove difficult since China prohibits mailing laptops over concerns about the fire risks posed by certain batteries in shipments.

Your Inside the Ring columnist took the risky step of renting a Chinese laptop — a model built by China’s Lenovo — through a hotel concierge. Lenovo computers are banned within the Pentagon over security concerns that the Chinese could use hardware contained in the laptops to send information back to China.


The White House recently published a report on Chinese economic aggression against the United States that contains new details on Beijing’s spy operations.

The report, “How China’s Economic Aggression Threatens the Technologies and Intellectual Property of the United States and the World,” states that China’s Ministry of State Security employs around 40,000 intelligence officers overseas and more than 50,000 spies inside China. That 90,000 MSS spying cadre is bolstered by “tens of thousands” of Chinese military spies, the report said.

According to the report, a special Pentagon unit called the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, or DIUx, recently concluded that “the scale of the [Chinese economic] espionage continues to increase.”

The large-scale, state-sponsored technology theft by China has overwhelmed American law enforcement agencies.

“In part, this is because U.S. companies may be unaware of theft by an insider before it is too late,” the report said. “In part, this is because some U.S. companies are unwilling to report the theft for fear of the adverse consequences that such a disclosure could entail. Even when victims report, the Chinese government is typically unwilling to cooperate, making a successful cross-border investigation difficult.”


Full article: China electronic spying threat (The Washington Times)

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