Thursday, January 20, 2011

Chinese Espionage and French Trade Secrets

Via STRATFOR (Security Weekly) -

Paris prosecutor Jean-Claude Marin on Jan. 14 began an inquiry into allegations of commercial espionage carried out against French carmaker Renault. The allegations first became public when Renault suspended three of its employees on Jan. 3 after an internal investigation that began in August 2010. Within days, citing an anonymous French government source, Reuters reported that French intelligence services were looking into the possibility that China played a role in the Renault espionage case. While the French government refused to officially confirm this accusation, speculation has run wild that Chinese state-sponsored spies were stealing electric-vehicle technology from Renault.

The Chinese are well-known perpetrators of industrial espionage and have been caught before in France, but the details that have emerged so far about the Renault operation differ from the usual Chinese method of operation. And much has been learned about this MO just in the last two years across the Atlantic, where the United States has been increasingly aggressive in investigating and prosecuting cases of Chinese espionage. If Chinese intelligence services were indeed responsible for espionage at Renault it would be one of only a few known cases involving non-Chinese nationals and would have involved the largest amount of money since the case of the legendary Larry Wu-Tai Chin, China’s most successful spy.


China takes a mosaic approach to intelligence, which is a wholly different paradigm than that of the West. Instead of recruiting a few high-level sources, the Chinese recruit as many low-level operatives as possible who are charged with vacuuming up all available open-source information and compiling and analyzing the innumerable bits of intelligence to assemble a complete picture. This method fits well with Chinese demographics, which are characterized by countless thousands of capable and industrious people working overseas as well as thousands more analyzing various pieces of the mosaic back home.


The new Renault case, however, is very different from most Chinese espionage cases. First, it involved recruiting three French nationals with no ethnic ties to China, rather than first-generation Chinese. Second, the alleged payments to two of three Renault employees were much larger than Chinese agents usually receive, even those who are not ethnic Chinese. The one notable exception is the case of Larry Chin, who is believed to have received more than $1 million in the 30 years he spied for China as a translator for U.S. intelligence services. Renault executives would also be paid as much or more in salaries than what was found in these bank accounts, though we don’t know if more money was transferred in and out of the accounts. This may not be unprecedented, however; STRATFOR sources have reported being offered many millions of dollars to work for the Chinese government.

Another problem is the alleged use of a Chinese state-owned company to funnel payments to the Renault executives. Using a company traceable not only to China but to the government itself is a huge error in tradecraft. This is not likely a mistake that the Chinese intelligence services would make. In Chin’s case, all payments were made in cash and were exchanged in careful meetings outside the United States, in places where there was no surveillance.

Thus, STRATFOR doubts that the Renault theft was perpetrated by the Chinese. The leak suggesting otherwise was likely an assumption based on China’s frequent involvement in industrial espionage. Still, it could be a sign of new methods in Chinese spycraft.


There is little indication that the Chinese have switched from the high-quantity, low-quality mosaic intelligence method, and cyber-espionage activities such as hacking Google demonstrate that the mosaic method is only growing. The Internet allows China to recruit from its large base of capable computer users to find valuable information in the national interest. It provides even more opportunities to vacuum up information for intelligence analysis. Indeed, cyber-espionage is being used as another form of “insurance,” a way to ensure that the information collected by the intelligence services from other sources is accurate.

If China is responsible for the Renault penetration, the case would represent a change in the Chinese espionage MO, one aiming at a higher level and willing to spend more money, even though most of the cases prosecuted in the United States pointed to a continuation of the mosaic paradigm. Nevertheless, counterintelligence officers are likely watching carefully for higher-level recruits, fearing that others like Chin and Shriver may have remained undetected for years. These cases may be an indication of new resources made available to Western counterintelligence agencies and not new efforts by the Chinese.

One thing is certain: Chinese espionage activities will continue apace in 2011, and it will be interesting to see what targets are picked.

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