Old Hands Turned New Hires – Chinese Espionage in the American Intelligence Community
By Haley Grizzell
The People’s Republic of China has been recruiting retired intelligence officers to leak classified information to the Chinese government. In just the latest part of uncovering this trend, the United States arrested Alexander Yuk Ching Ma, a former CIA officer, on August 14, 2020. In response to the incident, Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers commented, “The trail of Chinese espionage is long and, sadly, strewn with former American intelligence officers who betrayed their colleagues, their country and its liberal democratic values to support an authoritarian communist regime.” Chinese intelligence has been using a combination of traditional espionage techniques, artificial intelligence, and misinformation to achieve its recruiting and espionage goals. The Chinese government has had clear successes in hiring spies from within the United States, and if this trend continues, it will undermine American intelligence and national security aims.
China’s espionage tactics have been getting more aggressive as it gains power in world affairs. This means Chinese intelligence will go to more extreme lengths and push more blatant recruitment strategies, such as messaging former intelligence officials on LinkedIn. Private messages through professional networks should be alarming because Chinese recruiters would have to have multiple connections to intelligence officials to develop a pool of potential recruits, and it is concerning that these recruiters have already found success in turning former intelligence officers against the United States in such an obvious way.
If China continues to successfully recruit former intelligence officers, these highly trained spies can steal Top Secret-level defense, medical, and technology research from the United States. China has set a goal to be the world leader in science and technology by 2050, and the country’s leaders know that they will have to steal research and state secrets to improve the odds between Chinese scientists and their rivals. Chinese intelligence has used these techniques in the past, even going so far as to stealing detailed blueprints of U.S. Air Force equipment.
If the United States does not intensify its actions against theft of American research and defense technology, Chinese spies will pull off even greater information heists. China often spreads a narrative of the United States as a power that only acts unilaterally and is unwilling to cooperate or share technologies with countries in need. The United States sees innovation as crucially important to liberal democracies’ identities and decries Chinese copycat technologies as intellectual property theft with no benefit to anyone except businesses in China, many of which are government-owned or have strong ties to the Chinese Communist Party. Keeping American businesses and scientists protected from Chinese spies means greater security for investors and consumers, as well as the ability to keep profits to oneself, not be edged out by cheaper Chinese copies of products. Retaining American intelligence officers is key to protecting business and science breakthroughs.
Conventional in-person or online networking tactics are not the only way Chinese intelligence has been finding recruits. Data mining through social media has also found its way into Chinese intelligence’s toolkit. The United States has attempted to address the problems of social media and communications security through legislation and executive orders. In 2019, the precursor to the American government’s response to TikTok, Executive Order 13873 (Securing the Information and Communications Technology and Services Supply Chain) went into effect. Apps created and based in the People’s Republic of China remain a concern for national security, and the American government will likely continue to issue executive orders and other policies to control what information Chinese companies can collect from American consumers.
As the United States government restricts ways for Chinese operatives to collect data on social media, Chinese intelligence and businesses need to be creative. China has been particularly successful in developing and repurposing artificial intelligence. Artificial intelligence and semi-autonomous technologies, such as cars, have enabled unsupervised data collection. These technologies can even be programmed to contact a central command run by human intelligence when something these technologies have been prompted to flag occurs.
Just as artificial intelligence can flag certain behaviors or events in the physical world, it can do the same in the virtual world. This tactic is especially useful for misinformation and propaganda. In an era where things “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief,” bots can be more effective recruiters of potential spies than human spies.
China has been using traditional techniques, artificial intelligence, misinformation, and social media to recruit former American intelligence officers to spy on the United States. Artificial intelligence is perhaps the most important and concerning tool of Chinese intelligence. Artificial intelligence will only get more advanced in its abilities to mimic and interpret human emotion. The technology can anticipate people’s actions and understand how they think through events. Though artificial intelligence is not perfect, it is advanced enough to flag certain behaviors or speech as of interest to human counterparts. Social media captures people’s emotions when they are at home and most emotionally vulnerable, and China is interested in this data. Former intelligence employees who have indulged in misinformation propagated by foreign states or who have fallen into financial difficulty may be at serious risk of Chinese recruitment efforts. Any sort of emotional turbulence is capable of being monitored by technology companies, and many of those companies are unable to fully protect customers’ data. Through this surveillance and other means, China will continue to turn former employees against the agencies they worked for and the United States will have to carefully track and retain these people and their loyalties.