• Jorge Sheldon

Is China spying on your Private Life and Business Affairs?

Blackberry, Amazon, Apple, etc. are some of the companies that are already compromised.

From the sweatshop capital of the world to a burgeoning superpower in two decades, China has made a massive transformation. And that is why all of us should be concerned. In centuries past, two great powers, one old the other new, would have battled for hegemonic supremacy. But in the modern era, power is synonymous with information: to know is to control.

From 2011 to 2018, the US Department of Justice reported that China was involved with ninety per cent of all economic espionage cases they had handled. Stolen wind turbine technology led to the loss of more than $1 billion in shareholder equity for one US company. In another case, a Chinese scientist stole genetically modified rice seeds with bio-pharmaceutical applications, intending to give them to the Chinese crop institute.

However, these cases are the tip of a colossal iceberg.

Forbidden Fruits

Britain was once known as the 'workshop of the world'. As the Empire declined, America inherited the mantle; then, in the '90s, as China opened up to the world, American corporations moved their factories across the Pacific. The move was heralded as a boon for economic trade. However, the repercussions of such a decision are only now being realized.

In 2018, Bloomberg Businessweek published an eye-opening piece, in which they detailed how China had been inserting surveillance microchips in servers used by the world’s biggest tech companies, including Inc and Apple Inc.

The chips, smaller than a grain-of-rice, had first been discovered on the motherboards of a company named Elemental after Amazon had requested their servers for inspection. Following the shocking discovery, a shiver went down the spine of the US establishment. Elemental servers were found in Department of Defense data centers, CIA drone operations, and onboard Navy warships.

Elemental wasn't unique: they were one of many.

China had planned the operation from the beginning, aiming to use its manufacturing power – the nation makes 75 per cent of the world’s mobile phones and 90 per cent of PCs – to open a backdoor into the world’s computer network.

Three years prior, Apple had discovered malicious chips on their motherboards, severing ties with the seller for ‘unrelated reasons’. The Chinese authorities had taken a bite of the forbidden fruit: knowledge – and had developed a taste.

Few appreciate the magnitude of what had been accomplished: the intricate level of planning and complexity involved in such an operation. Joe Grand, the founder of Grand Idea Studio Inc., was amazed, ‘Having a well-done, nation-state-level hardware implant surface would be like witnessing a unicorn jumping over a rainbow.’

Through the Back Door

These microchips might have been tiny, but their power was immense. Through them, a system’s code could be edited, line by line, altering a device’s functioning without anyone realising. The chip had been connected to the baseboard management controller, that usually grants administrators the ability to access the most sensitive code, irrespective of whether a computer was off or had crashed. This configuration allowed hackers to edit the information queue or alter the order of instructions sent to the CPU.

What powers did this grant the Chinese? The chip can steal encryption keys; it can enable access without a password, or create new pathways to the internet. To the layman: it allowed total control.

The back door has been unlocked, and the red dragon has gotten in.

In 2016, Kryptowire, a US cyber-security firm revealed that a Chinese company called Adups was collecting a vast volume of user information: SMS messages, call history, address books, app lists, phone hardware identifiers. The data was being beamed back to servers in China. An unremovable app named com.adups.fota was a trojan horse for the backdoor code, with an estimated 700 million devices - mostly low-budget Android phones – containing the backdoor.

Many companies are being played; some are playing ball. Despite Apple's refusal to provide a backdoor to US security agencies, the company has fully cooperated with demands from China's State Internet Information Office to conduct security checks on their devices. Such inspections may provide China access to Apple's operating system source code, in exchange for the company doing business in China. Knowing the code will only make it easier to exploit.

Apple has once again come under fire after its iOS 14 was found to be secretly allowing apps to access the clipboard on users' devices. China's TikTok was revealed to be amongst the companies snooping. Every keystroke could be monitored. All a phone's passwords, emails, financial information: everything was available to the company.

The New Cold War

Following the array of revelations, Western nations and companies are seeking to distance themselves from China. The rollout of 5G – the fifth-generation cellular network – has been halted, due to concerns about giving China access to such a vital piece of digital infrastructure. The US fears that if 5G is implemented by Chinese telecom giants Huawei and ZTE, then it will enable the siphoning off of personal and corporate data – and understandable worry, given the recent history.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently warned the EU, not to 'trust Chinese firms with critical networks.' Australia has already expanded its restrictions on Chinese firms running 5G technology. Meanwhile, the UK, which signed a deal to allow Huawei to implement the 5G system, is now moving to drop the company, citing a lack of transparency surrounding the coronavirus. Many are urging Prime Minister Boris Johnson to go further, creating an alliance of nations against China, and it's rampant spying.

These actions are furthering the belief that the world is currently entering a new cold war: a digital cold war; an espionage war.

The attacks are coming thick and fast. In 2015, the US Office of Personnel Management was the subject of a sophisticated cyberattack which stole a trove of information, including data from the security clearance process. Many attacks never even get reported.

With most of the world’s hardware being produced in China, such events are likely to continue. Only one question remains: can we lock the backdoor, or is it open for good?

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