It's a threat even greater than the increasingly common recalls of Chinese products, U.S. officials say, and now branches of the U.S. government are teaming up to counteract the growing economic and military powers' appetites for technology secrets.
Although the cloak-and-dagger battles of Cold War espionage passed with the demise of the Soviet Union, the stakes are higher now as many powers seek to gain advanced technology from the world's military and nuclear powers, especially the United States.
"The threat of technology theft and proliferation is a subtle, but it's an extremely insidious threat to our national security," said Ken Wainstein, assistant attorney general for the National Security Division, at a Thursday news conference.
"It's a threat that's carried out in the shadows and does not raise the same level of alarm as the violence of a terrorist attack or the sword-rattling of a belligerent rogue state. But it is a very serious threat nonetheless. It is dangerous and it is just as potentially deadly."
Some of the technology might even seem benign, but it often has more than one application. The same device used by hospitals to smash kidney stones can also be used to detonate a nuclear bomb — and officials point out that a recent shipment of such equipment intended for a hospital in South Africa was actually on its way to Pakistan.
"These technologies are basically the reason the United States is a super power," weapons proliferation specialist John Pike told ABC News. "These are the technologies that give America's military a quarter of a century's lead over that of Russia and China."
To counter the threat, the Justice Department, along with Immigration Customs Enforcement, the FBI and the Defense Criminal Investigative Service, launched a counter-proliferation initiative to curb the transfer of sensitive technologies being sent overseas — especially to China, Iran and possibly terrorist networks.
"It goes without saying that keeping this technology from falling into the wrong hands has never been more important than it is now in this post-9/11 world," Wainstein said. "We know that al Qaeda has been trying to acquire or make weapons of mass destruction for more than a decade."
"We know that Osama bin Laden issued a fatwa declaring it an obligation of his followers to develop and use such dangerous weapons," he continued. "And we know that foreign states are actively and aggressively seeking out our technology to advance their own military systems and technical capacity."
Julie Myers, homeland security undersecretary for immigration and customs enforcement, said Thursday, "The threat is real and the consequences dire. The number of attempts to illegally smuggle weapons and strategic technology out of the United States remains a persistent challenge."
While the immediate threat of terrorism has been the top national security concern after 9/11, the proliferation of sensitive technologies is a looming threat.
Michael McConnell, the director of national intelligence, recently noted, "China and Russia's foreign intelligence services are among the most aggressive in collecting against sensitive and protected U.S. systems, facilities and developmental projects."
"Their efforts are reaching Cold War levels," McConnell continued.