A widespread and worrying web of espionage.
August 13, 2019
 John Glynn

According to FireEye, a cybersecurity company headquartered in Milpitas, California, a group of state-sponsored hackers in China ran activities for personal gain at the same time as undertaking spying operations for the Chinese government in 14 different countries.

In a report released on Thursday, July 8th, the authors outlined the ways in which elite teams of Chinese government-backed hackers are using non-public malware typically reserved for espionage to make money through attacks on video game companies.

Hackers have repeatedly gained access to game development environments, with a particular focus on in-game currency, according to the FireEye report.

In one example, hackers successfully appropriated tens of millions of dollars of virtual currency and credited the loot to more than 1,000 accounts. As Josh Taylor at The Guardian notes, China’s “attention to video game companies could be seen as a precursor to espionage activity.”

Then again, espionage is something at which the Chinese regime excels.

Kathrine Hill at FT warns readers that China has sent “thousands of scientists affiliated with its armed forces to western universities — especially in countries that share intelligence with the US — and is building a web of research collaboration that could boost Beijing’s military technology development.”

Over the past decade, roughly 2,500 researchers from Chinese military universities have spent time at universities in the west; many of these are informants hide their military affiliations. This is not conjecture. Researchers at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), a think-tank partly funded by Australia’s department of defense, have focused on members of the so-called “Five Eyes,” a group of countries with which the US exchanges intelligence and scientific findings. The “Five Eyes” include UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Interestingly, since 2013, researchers affiliated to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have published more joint papers with scientists from the UK and the US than with those of any other country.

The findings leave us asking a couple of questions:

  1. Should western researchers be collaborating with researchers affiliated to the People’s Liberation Army?
  2. Should researchers in the west be helping Beijing to develop cutting-edge technology which will ultimately help the fascist state continue to act immorally?

These questions need to be asked because China is no friend of the west. In 2011, reports circulated detailing the ways in which Chinese students were infiltrating British universities to steal technological and scientific findings. These students also planted software bugs to relay the information to China.

In 2018, a New Zealand academic who made international waves researching China’s international influence campaigns was threatened by officials from Beijing.  University of Canterbury professor Anne-Marie Brady, who lives in Christchurch, has received letters warning of physical harm. She had three laptops – including one used for work – stolen.

Previously, Chinese officials had contacted Brady’s employers, pressuring them to cut ties with the brave academic. In March of this year, dozens of universities in Canada and the United States fell victim to a cyberattack conducted by Chinese hackers attempting to steal information on military technology. In June of this year, Chinese attackers breached the computer systems of the Australian National University (ANU) to gain access to student data going back almost two decades. The data included bank accounts, phone numbers, addresses, passport and tax file numbers, and academic records.

Authorities described the attack as highly sophisticated, indicating it was certainly the work of a government as opposed to a criminal group. Though, when we discuss China, the lines between governance and criminal behavior become increasingly blurred.

Nevertheless, in the UK, such cases of Chinese interference have largely been ignored. According to a recent BBC report, a number of UK universities are currently collaborating with the National University of Defense Technology (NUDT) on a series of academic papers. Much of the collaboration appears to involve aerospace and aviation. One of these universities is the University of Cambridge. Why are researchers from Cambridge teaming up with researchers associated with the Chinese party? In an effort to produce the next generation of supercomputer experts for China and enhance China’s power in the areas of defense, communications, anti-jamming for imaging and high-precision navigation. Numerous Chinese researchers have visited UK universities and are continuing joint research on topics such as combustion in scramjet engines, which could power hypersonic aircraft capable of flying at six times the speed of sound. Such a savvy piece of equipment could be used for military combat.  

In the aforementioned BBC report, Alex Joske, an Australian researcher who has studied Chinese espionage, had this to say: “Collaboration between the United Kingdom and NUDT is highly concerning. UK universities are estimated to have trained hundreds of scientists from NUDT as part of the Chinese military’s efforts to leverage foreign civilian expertise for military ends. At the moment, there appears to be little oversight of these engagements.”

Of course, all countries, especially the US and UK, use espionage. However, China appears to operate in a particularly nefarious manner. As the BBC report notes, “China has an over-arching strategy to target commercial information specifically to support its companies, which are often linked to the state. This is something they [US and UK government officials] say their spies do not do.”

China is quickly becoming the most dangerous country in the world, but why are many of the brightest minds in the west so eager to speed up the process?


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