Thursday, April 03, 2008

China: An Intellectual Vacuum Cleaner?

(Photo via sekihan)

Chinese sleeper agents stealing US technology:
Prosecutors called Chi Mak the "perfect sleeper agent," though he hardly looked the part. For two decades, the bespectacled Chinese-born engineer lived quietly with his wife in a Los Angeles suburb, buying a house and holding a steady job with a U.S. defense contractor, which rewarded him with promotions and a security clearance. Colleagues remembered him as a hard worker who often took paperwork home at night.

Eventually, Mak's job gave him access to sensitive plans for Navy ships, submarines and weapons. These he secretly copied and sent via courier to China -- fulfilling a mission that U.S. officials say he had been planning since the 1970s.

Mak was sentenced last week to 24 1/2 years in prison by a federal judge who described the lengthy term as a warning to China not to "send agents here to steal America's military secrets." But it may already be too late: According to U.S. intelligence and Justice Department officials, the Mak case represents only a small facet of an intelligence-gathering operation that has long been in place and is growing in size and sophistication.

The Chinese government, in an enterprise that one senior official likened to an "intellectual vacuum cleaner," has deployed a diverse network of professional spies, students, scientists and others to systematically collect U.S. know-how, the officials said. Some are trained in modern electronic techniques for snooping on wireless computer transactions. Others, such as Mak, are technical experts who have been in place for years and have blended into their communities.

Recent prosecutions indicate that Chinese agents have infiltrated sensitive military programs pertaining to nuclear missiles, submarine propulsion technology, night-vision capabilities and fighter pilot training -- all of which could help China modernize its programs while developing countermeasures against advanced weapons systems used by the United States and its allies.

While military technology appears to be the top prize, the Chinese effort is also aimed at commercial and industrial technologies, which often are poorly protected, several officials said. "Espionage used to be a problem for the FBI, CIA and military, but now it's a problem for corporations," Brenner said. "It's no longer a cloak-and-dagger thing. It's about computer architecture and the soundness of electronic systems."
I remember some of the older engineers at Westinghouse telling me stories of Chinese businessmen who got caught staying late at the office an photocopying any engineering drawings they could get could get their hands on -- often ones that had no relevance to anything they were working on.

This type of spying seems to represent several things: (1) A deep-rooted national security problem; (2) a black mark against the trustworthiness of the Chinese government; (3) an indication that China is far behind the US with its human capital and ability to innovate. From a national security perspective, problems 1 and 2 are deeply troubling. Problem 3 is not.

I do think this should be a deep concern for US officials, both on military and intellectual property grounds. Strong sentencing for perpetrators in one method of trying to use the law for general deterrence of this type of spying, but may only have limited effect. If the spying is as rampant as claimed, then the number of prosecutions seems to be quite low. The expected chances of getting caught seem to be quite low making harsh punishment unlikely to have much effect. I also doubt that negotiations with the Chinese government will make much of a change -- they have to much to gain by engaging in this type of espionage. The other option is for the US government and corporations to invest more time and money into taking precautions to protect information they think is sensitive.

If the Chinese have gotten as much information as this article suggests, is that a stronger indication of the deviousness of the Chinese government or the ineptitude of the US government?

Read my previous post on why I think the Chinese military will not be as much of a threat in the short-run as many believe it will be.

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