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Wednesday, April 7, 2010 as of 11:14 AM ET

Asia

Mike Levine

Washington, DC

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Officials Worry About World’s Expo In China

April 30, 2010 - 11:10 AM | by: Mike Levine

The U.S. pavilion at World's Expo

 

China says it’s an “opportunity to showcase great achievements and diverse cultures,” but the World’s Expo, which opens in Shanghai on Friday night, is also an opportunity for China to spy on Americans and even recruit new intelligence sources, according to current and former U.S. officials.

“Are people who go to the Expo potential targets for espionage? I think you’d be a fool to think otherwise,” said one U.S. official, who asked not to be identified due to the sensitive nature of the topic.

More than 70 million people from China and abroad, including some of the world’s most powerful businessmen, are expected to visit the Expo before it closes in six months. Nearly 200 countries have set up pavilions, displays and food stands representing their singular cultures and history, according to event organizers.

“The event will be the first registered world exhibition held in a developing country, demonstrating the international community’s trust in China and its anticipation of the country’s future development,” said a video released by event organizers. “Expo Shanghai provides an opportunity for China to see the world, and the world to see China.”

But for years U.S. officials have worried that China might be able to see too much during the World’s Expo and similar global events.

“These public venues are laden with opportunities for foreign collectors to interact with U.S. experts and glean information regarding dual-use and sensitive technologies,” said a 2008 report issued by the U.S. intelligence community to Congress. “Such events offer host-country intelligence agencies the opportunity to spot, assess, and even recruit new intelligence sources within the U.S. private sector and to gain electronic access to companies’ virtual networks and databases through technology brought to the events by corporate personnel.”

The report, titled “Foreign Economic Collection and Industrial Espionage,” mentioned the World’s Expo specifically, noting that intelligence and information collection in such “open forums accounted for over four percent of reported suspicious incidents” in the previous year.

A U.S. intelligence official said the threat environment has not changed much since then, pointing out that the offices of the Director of National Intelligence and National Counterintelligence Executive, which jointly issued the 2008 report, have not retracted it.

“We continue to view certain countries such as China and Russia, with their efforts to acquire technologies, as a threat,” the intelligence official said.

The sentiment was echoed by Marion “Spike” Bowman, a veteran of the intelligence community who as the nation’s Deputy National Counterintelligence Executive at the time helped draft the 2008 report.

“The fact of the matter is that the United States, with about three percent of the world’s population, we spend 25 percent of all the world’s research and development dollars,” he said. “So we are the number one target in the world.”

Before events like the World’s Expo or the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, the intelligence and law enforcement communities often try to teach business executives and others about the threats they face, Bowman said.

Bowman said the largest threat is a country’s efforts to steal trade secrets and other sensitive technology information.

Intelligence officials often urge traveling business executives to take a “throw away” cell phone instead of their “normal” devices, and to leave their laptops at home, or “at least let your IT folks scrub the hell out of them when you come back,” according to Bowman.

“If you take your blackberry and you go back home and you sync it up to your internet and to your office files, the chances of you being penetrated by a bug that’s been planted in your blackberry are just too high to merit the risk,” Bowman said.

In China, for example, a hotel maid could simply install a file on a guest’s computer. To make things “even easier,” a hotel employee could steal information through a guest’s use of the hotel’s internet service, according to Bowman.

Before the Olympics in 2008, officials from the Director of National Intelligence’s office held private meetings with up to 30 Chief Executive Officers from the nation’s biggest companies, demonstrating to them “how easy it is” to hack into a cell phone or a laptop, Bowman said.

U.S. intelligence officials successfully persuaded some key executives to leave their laptops behind and take disposable cell phones, according to Bowman.

Bowman said he was unaware of any serious incidents or espionage activities during the Olympic Games in Beijing, which were also mentioned as a “high-threat environment” in the 2008 intelligence report to Congress.

While Bowman said economic espionage is the greatest threat facing Americans who might travel to the World’s Expo, he said countries hosting global events may also try to recruit new spies.

It’s unclear exactly how common it is for an American to be recruited or “assessed” while traveling overseas, but it has happened before.

In November 2009, a former high-ranking State Department intelligence official and his wife, both in their early 70s, pleaded guilty to aiding the Cuban government for nearly 30 years. Three decades earlier, in December 1978, Walter Kendall Myers, then a State Department employee with an affinity for Cuba, visited the communist country for two weeks.

That trip “provided [Cuban intelligence] with the opportunity to assess and or develop Kendall Myers as a Cuban agent,” according to court documents filed by the FBI.

As for China, a federal law enforcement official who deals with intelligence matters said the nation “continues to pose a threat,” particularly an economic espionage threat, and a State Department official said the U.S. government has “concerns for all Americans traveling to China under all circumstances.”

“Although the Expo may concentrate more business people together during a short time period, that does not change the risk,” said the State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

But, the official said, Americans from U.S. firms have likely taken precautions, since “most of those companies have been doing business in China for years and know the drill.”

In addition, the State Department’s Overseas Advisory Council warns and educates private businesses about potential threats and methods for protecting sensitive information.

China has spent $45 billion to host the World’s Expo, which opens Friday night with a ceremony and fireworks display.

The United States has spent more than $60 million to participate and build a pavilion representing America, with financial support from several major U.S. companies, including Boeing, PepsiCo, General Electric, and Proctor and Gamble.

In a letter to the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said it is “crucial for the United States to be present” and support the Expo’s environmental theme of “Better City, Better Life.”

Meanwhile, the World Expo’s promotional video said China “loves international communication and world peace.”

“Because China is undergoing a reform and opening process, it needs to expand exchanges and learn from the development experiences of other countries by hosting this successful and unforgettable World Expo,” the video said.

In fact, China is likely to become the world’s second largest economy later this year, according the U.S. intelligence community’s annual threat assessment for 2010.

Presenting the assessment to Congress in February, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair noted that China has played a “central role” in the response to the global economic crisis.

“[China] has served as one of the key engines for global recovery, reinforcing perceptions of its increasing economic and diplomatic influence,” he said.

Fox News requested comment for this article from the Chinese Embassy in Washington, but no response was provided.

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