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Cyber Espionage Space Tech

Caught in the Act: Unravelling Tech Espionage – Chinese National Trespassing Raises National Security Concerns

Caught trespassing on SpaceX’s premises on 16 November 2023, Zhaoning Jiang, a Chinese national, claimed innocence, citing casual photo-taking as his motive. However, his intrusion into the grounds has sparked alarm bells about potential tech espionage.

SpaceX, renowned for pioneering aerospace technology, houses critical projects at its Boca Chica facility, notably the Starship spacecraft development, intensifying concerns surrounding Jiang’s unauthorised actions.

Post from the Cameron County Sheriff’s Office

National Security News has learned through online inquiries that Jiang is the owner of a lighting, smart technology, and Internet of Things (IoT) company in China. These types of companies could potentially be used to facilitate or execute cyber espionage activities.

The specific motivations of Jiang remain ambiguous, although he admitted to Sheriff Deputies that he accessed the premises without permission. Nevertheless, there is concern regarding such conduct potentially serving as a method to gather sensitive information. Notably, a user, posting on the Cameron County Sheriff’s Office profile on X, urged the FBI and CIA to investigate the situation further. And others on social media called Jiang “another spy.”

Jiang was to be charged with criminal trespass, although it’s unclear if the charge was formally brought against him or if he was convicted. However, based on his online activity, there are indications that he has returned to China.

The incident highlights the growing threat of tech espionage, as foreign governments and corporations seek to steal proprietary information and gain an edge in the global tech race.

The use of HUMINT tactics, such as pretending to be lost or a tourist, is a common technique employed by spies to blend in and avoid detection.

In recent years, there have been numerous cases of Chinese nationals engaged in tech espionage, targeting both private companies and government agencies.

The theft of intellectual property can have severe economic and national security consequences. It can harm the competitiveness of businesses, erode technological advantage, and even compromise the national defence capabilities. For example, in 2018, a Chinese company was found guilty of stealing the technology secrets of an American wind turbine company, AMSC. The impact of this tech espionage was substantial, as the company lost its competitive advantage, sales collapsed, and the company laid off nearly 700 workers.

Five Eyes intelligence leaders on “60 Minutes” on CBS News

Last month, in a Five Eyes meeting, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray focussed in on the Chinese government as the primary menace to innovation, asserting, “There is no greater threat to innovation than the Chinese government.”

He highlighted China’s pattern of pilfering American technological expertise and leveraging the stolen knowledge to perpetuate further theft.

Further to this, Ken McCallum, MI5’s director general, noted a significant surge in investigations into Chinese espionage in Britain since 2018.

McCallum cautioned, “If you are operating at the cutting edge of tech in this decade, you may not be interested in geopolitics, but geopolitics is interested in you.”

“This is not just about government secrets or military secrets. It’s not even just about critical infrastructure. It’s about academic research in our universities. It’s about promising startup companies. People, in short, who probably don’t think national security is about them.”

The Jiang case serves as a reminder of the need for heightened vigilance in protecting sensitive technologies. Companies like SpaceX should implement robust security measures to prevent unauthorised access to their facilities and intellectual property. Additionally, government agencies should continue to investigate and prosecute those engaged in tech espionage.

Val Dockrell is a London-based Senior Investigator and Open Source Intelligence (“OSINT”) specialist who has led in-depth investigations in multiple jurisdictions around the world. She also speaks several languages and is a member of the Fraud Women’s Network. Her X (formerly Twitter) handle is @ValDockrell.