Security experts also warn about Russia, Israel and even France, which in the 1990s reportedly bugged first-class airplane cabins to capture business travelers’ conversations. Many other countries, including the United States, spy on one another for national security purposes.
But China’s brazen use of cyber-espionage stands out because the focus is often corporate, part of a broader government strategy to help develop the country’s economy, according to experts who advise American businesses and government agencies.
“I’ve been told that if you use an iPhone or BlackBerry, everything on it — contacts, calendar, e-mails — can be downloaded in a second. All it takes is someone sitting near you on a subway waiting for you to turn it on, and they’ve got it,” said Kenneth Lieberthal, a former senior White House official for Asia who is at the Brookings Institution.
Chinese government officials say cyber-spying is a problem in much of the world. “It’s advisable for all international travelers to take due precautions with their computers and cellphones,” embassy spokesman Wang Baodong said. “China is not less insecure than other countries.”
Some industrial cyber-espionage takes place in the U.S corporate world, experts say, but not nearly to the extent found in China. Also, the U.S. government reportedly does not conduct economic espionage on behalf of U.S. industry.
Travelers there often tote disposable cellphones and loaner laptops stripped of sensitive data. Some U.S. officials take no electronic gear. And a few corporate executives detour to Australia rather than risk talking business in a bugged Chinese hotel room.
Other travelers hide files on thumb drives, which they carry at all times and use only on off-line computers. One security expert, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid drawing scrutiny from the Chinese government, buys a new iPad for each visit, then never uses it again.
“It’s real easy for them [the Chinese] to read everything that goes in and out of the country because the government owns all the networks,” said Jody Westby, chief executive of Global Cyber Risk, a consulting firm.
“The real problem here is economic espionage,” she said. “There are countries where the search for economic information and high-value data is so aggressive that companies or people are very hesitant about taking their laptops to those countries.”
Business travelers began adopting such safety measures for China several years ago, experts say. On the eve of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Joel Brenner, then the U.S. national counterintelligence executive, first issued government safety guidance to overseas travelers, with such tips as: “If you can do without the device, don’t take it.”