Espionage: How is China trying to steal US industrial secrets?

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  • Nicholas Young
  • BBC

2 hours ago

image copyright GettyImages

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Turbine blades of General Electric of France

A seemingly innocent photograph was the cause of the thunderous fall of Zeng Xiaoqing, a former employee of the General Electric Power Group of Companies.

According to the US Department of Justice, US citizen Zeng was hiding classified files he had stolen from his company in the binary code of a sunset photograph he had emailed to himself.

He did this using a technique called “steganography”, which is a method of hiding one informational file within the code of another informational file. Zing has used this technique several times to steal sensitive files from General Electric.

It is known that General Electric is a huge corporation that includes a number of multinational companies operating in the health care, energy and space sectors, and manufactures many things, from refrigerators to aircraft engines.

The information Zeng stole related to the design and manufacture of gas and steam turbine engines, including their turbine blades and steam seals. Zeng sent that information, worth millions of dollars, to China, with which he was an accomplice. The goal is for the Chinese government, companies and universities to benefit from that information.

Zeng was arrested and sentenced to two years in prison earlier this month. His case is the latest in a series of similar cases investigated by US authorities. Last November, for example, Zhou Yangun, who is described as a professional spy, was sentenced to 20 years in prison on charges of planning to steal industrial secrets from several US companies specializing in the fields of aviation and space, including General Electric.

And those issues are part of a broader battle, as China fights for the technical information that enables it to strengthen its economy and challenge the global geopolitical order, while the United States does its best to prevent the emergence of serious challengers to American influence.

The theft of industrial secrets is tempting, because it allows countries to “climb the ladder of global progress relatively quickly – and at no cost to them, either in terms of money or in terms of time – if they rely entirely on the capabilities of their citizens”, says Nick Marrow of The intelligence analysis unit of the Economist Media Group told the BBC.

Last July, FBI Director Christopher Wray told a gathering of business leaders and academics in London that China aims to “plunder” the intellectual assets of Western companies so that they can accelerate their industrial advancement and eventually dominate vital industries. Ultimate.

It spies on companies everywhere “from big cities to small towns, from Fortune-100 companies by revenue to start-ups, and has people focused on everything from aviation to artificial intelligence to Pharmaceutical Industry.

At the time, then-Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian responded that Mr Ray was seeking to “discredit China” and that he had a “cold war mentality”.

‘China seeks to overthrow our position’

In the US Department of Defense’s statement on the Zeng case, Alan Kohler, a senior FBI official, said that China was targeting “American innovation skills” and seeking to “underthrow our status” as a global superpower.

Zeng was an engineer specializing in steam and gas seal technology in turbine engines, and worked on several projects related to leak containment technology in the field of turbine engineering. This technology aims to improve the performance of these engines as much as possible, “whether by increasing power or efficiency or extending the operating life of the engine,” as stated in the Ministry of Defense statement.

The turbofan engines that power aircraft are crucial to the development efforts of China’s aviation industry.

Aerospace and aviation equipment are among the 10 sectors targeted by the Chinese authorities in order to make rapid progress to reduce the country’s dependence on foreign technology, and eventually surpass it.

But Chinese industrial espionage targets many other sectors as well.

According to Ray Wang, founder of Constellation Research, a Silicon Valley-based consultancy and research group, those sectors include the pharmaceutical industry and nanotechnology — engineering and technology that studies matter at infinitesimal dimensions, and is used in fields such as medicine, textiles and automobiles. . A nanometer is a billionth of a meter.

It also includes bioengineering that simulates biological processes and uses them in areas such as prosthetics and tissue engineering.

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Mr. Wang quotes a former director of research and development at a Fortune 100 company as saying that his “most trusted person” – someone he was very close to and had both grown up with, turned out to be working for the Chinese Communist Party.

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“It was explained to me that there are spies everywhere,” he adds.

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photo comment,

China needs technological know-how to stimulate its economy and challenge the global geopolitical order

Previously, Mr. Maru says, industrial espionage by countries such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore was a concern. However, once local companies become market-leading innovators and then start protecting their intellectual property rights, their governments in turn begin to pass legislation to make the matter more seriously.

“While Chinese companies have become more innovative over the past decade, we have seen that this has been accompanied by a clear strengthening of intellectual property rights protection,” he adds.

China has also gained a lot of experience and technical knowledge by persuading foreign companies to hand over their technologies under joint venture agreements, in return for allowing them to enter the Chinese market. Despite the complaints, the Chinese government has always denied the accusations against it of forcing these companies to give it its technology.

agreement block the pirate ‘a joke

There have been attempts to reduce piracy in particular.

In 2015, the United States signed an agreement with China in which they pledged not to engage in “cyber theft of intellectual property, including industrial secrets or other confidential information, for the purpose of commercial benefit.”

By the year after the agreement was signed, the US National Security Agency had accused the Chinese of breaching it, though it acknowledged that the number of attacks aimed at stealing information from government and companies had dropped “dramatically”.

But observers say the overall impact of the agreement has been very weak. Wang says it was a “joke” because it wasn’t implemented. He added that Chinese cyber espionage is “infiltrated” inside the United States, “and even extends to academic laboratories. “It is continuing in all areas of business in the West.”

However, Lim Tai Wai of the National University of Singapore points out that there are no “conclusive and indisputable studies” on the extent of this phenomenon.

He says: “Some believe that there was a decrease in Chinese cyber espionage on the US for a short period after which it returned to its previous levels. But others believe that [الاتفاقية] It failed because of the total collapse of China-US relations.”

At the same time, the United States seeks directly to block China’s progress in the critical semiconductor industry – an important industry that goes into many products, from smartphones to weapons – saying that China’s use of this technology poses a threat to its national security.

Last October, Washington announced a package of restrictions on its exports that are among the broadest restrictions so far, as companies that export electronic chips to China using American tools or software are required to obtain licenses from the authorities first, regardless of their country of manufacture. . Washington’s recent measures also prevent US citizens and people who have the right to permanent residence and work in the United States (the “Green Card”) from working for some Chinese companies that work in the field of electronic chips.

Maru says that while these measures will slow China’s progress in technology, they will also lead to China accelerating its efforts to remove US and foreign products from its technology supply chains.

“China has been doing this for years, with little success, but the current political objectives require greater speed as a result of the latest US restrictions,” he adds.

And with China also talking about its national security, the race for technological supremacy between the world’s two largest economies is likely to intensify.

But Mr. Wang believes the US is still ahead of China: “My friends who work in cybersecurity tell me that when they hack into Chinese websites, the only technology of value [التي يجدونها على تلك المواقع] It is the one owned by the United States.”

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