National security agencies are warning businesses and federal officials that laptops and e-mail devices taken to the Beijing Olympics are likely to be penetrated by Chinese agents aiming to steal secrets or plant bugs to infiltrate U.S. computer networks.
Chinese government and industry use electronic espionage to "easily access official and personal computers," says one recent report by the Overseas Security Advisory Council, a federally chartered panel comprising security experts from corporations and the State, Commerce and Treasury departments.
Equipment left unsupervised for just minutes in a hotel or even during a security screening can be hacked, mined and bugged, adds Larry Wortzel, who chairs the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a federal panel that monitors China-related security issues for Congress. China's government also controls Internet service providers and wireless networks, he says, so computers and PDAs can be monitored and planted with bugs remotely, too.
"There is a high likelihood — virtually 100% — that if an individual is of security, political, or business interest to Chinese … security services or high technology industries, their electronics can and will be tampered with or penetrated," Wortzel says.
China's embassy did not respond to requests for comment but usually dismisses espionage charges.
"The so-called accusation of the Chinese military espionage against the U.S. is groundless and fabrication with ulterior motives," Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said at a press conference last month.
Yet China's pursuit of American government and business secrets has been noted repeatedly in federal threat assessments.
Last year, the office of the Director of National Intelligence reported that China's espionage services are "among the most aggressive in collecting against sensitive and protected U.S. targets."
Thousands of Americans are expected to attend the Olympics, including President Bush and a large entourage of federal officials. Even so, the government isn't doing enough to publicize the potential espionage risks, says Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., a former FBI agent who sits on the House Intelligence Committee, which has been briefed on Chinese espionage threats.
The reticence stems partly from the administration's reluctance to anger China, a key U.S. trading partner, Rogers says. "I appreciate their position," he adds, but by "underreporting" the threat, national security officials let potential targets get "lulled into this notion that they don't have to worry about it."
The Chinese "will take full advantage of any opportunity to not only take a peek at what's on electronic devices but also to implant them" with bugs that could provide access to U.S. computer networks, Rogers says.
Rogers and others briefed on the threat suggest that Olympic visitors purge sensitive information on laptops and e-mail devices, or leave their regular equipment at home and carry "clean" surrogates.
Travelers returning from the games also should have their equipment checked for bugs or viruses before reconnecting to U.S. computer networks, says Ray Mey, who ran Olympics security at the FBI before joining GardaWorld as a corporate security consultant.
FBI spokesman Richard Kolko declined to discuss briefings given to federal officials and businesses. Any time executives are in a country capable of "exploiting electronic media," he says, the FBI strives "to notify them of these risks and … appropriate precautions."