In China's Push For High-Tech, Hackers Target Cutting-Edge U.S. Firms
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The U.S. says intellectual property theft by Chinese hackers is growing, and the U.S. will keep naming and shaming suspected cybercriminals. The Chinese are targeting the country's technology - from major corporations, Silicon Valley startups, even college research labs. NPR's Greg Myre has this look.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: To understand China's espionage goals, U.S. officials say, just look at the ambitious aims the country has set out in plans it calls Made In China 2025. By that date, China wants to be a world leader in computing power, military technology and artificial intelligence. And that's just a partial list.
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JOHN DEMERS: It's guidance to the rest of government and to the rest of their companies and to their people that this is what we want to be the best in class at and therefore that you should organize your activities, whether they are legal or illegal, to achieve that.
MYRE: That's John Demers of the Justice Department testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee. He says recent legal cases against China show the country is aggressively trying to steal technology directly linked to its national goals.
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DEMERS: We of course don't begrudge them their efforts to develop technologically, but you cannot use theft as a means to develop yourselves technologically.
MYRE: This Chinese approach doesn't follow the traditional spy-versus-spy battles that largely focus on acquiring government and military secrets. China's targets cover a broad spectrum, including things like genetically modified crops, according to Dean Cheng of the Heritage Foundation.
DEAN CHENG: People were stopped at U.S. airports. Their luggage was examined. And they had acquired seeds, seedlings, plants - literally the plants themselves.
MYRE: This is just one example, he says, of why U.S. corporations, universities and research labs all need to be aware of China's broad aims.
CHENG: The Chinese see food security as part of comprehensive national power and comprehensive national security. We don't tend to think about food security. They do.
MYRE: The U.S.-China relationship is a complex web of collaboration and competition. Before the trade war, the Chinese were big buyers of American soybeans and other crops. Toys made in China were stacked high under American Christmas trees. More than 300,000 Chinese students study at U.S. universities - nearly a third of all foreign students and far more than any other country. Many are in cutting-edge fields like artificial intelligence, or AI, says David Edelman, who heads a project at MIT on the intersection of technology, the economy and national security.
DAVID EDELMAN: We have a critical gap in the United States of AI expertise. Companies from Silicon Valley and elsewhere cannot hire enough trained AI experts - experts in machine learning. And foreign graduate students come to U.S. universities because they're the best.
MYRE: Edelman is well aware the U.S. could be training future adversaries. He was in charge of cybersecurity at the National Security Council under President Barack Obama, yet he warns against putting up too many barriers to Chinese students.
EDELMAN: The vast majority of graduate students that are coming to the U.S. for technical training, if they could, they would stay here. They would stay here and found a business or join a business in what is still the most thriving, open, technologically advanced, innovative economy in the world.
MYRE: The U.S. and China signed an agreement in 2015 that called for an end to intellectual property theft. Chinese corporate hacking did go down for a while, according to analysts, but it's rising again. In the latest case, the U.S. has charged two Chinese citizens and says they were working for China's main intelligence agency. David Edelman sees this naming and shaming as one way to deter China.
DEMERS: Because if there's one thing that, in my personal experience, really drove some in Beijing nuts, it was the allegation that they were behind every act of cyber theft.
MYRE: The growing U.S. legal cases will put this theory to the test. Greg Myre, NPR News, Washington.
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