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Netherlands, Canada and Finland raise concerns over Chinese espionage that can cripple democratic countries

Intelligence officers say that universities and other knowledge institutes are not only under threat of cyber-attacks, but Chinese researchers, PhD candidates and students in these institutes may be working as spies for China.

In a span of ten days, the intelligence agencies of three nations, Finland, Canada and the Netherlands, have raised concerns over the Chinese espionage attack on government, companies and universities. All three countries have said on separate occasions that collaborating with China can be dangerous for national security. The attacks may cover several sectors, including banking, energy and infrastructure.

China may use academic personnel as spies, says the Netherlands

As per the latest threat assessment issued by intelligence services AIVD, MIVD, and NCTV, the universities and other knowledge institutes in the Netherlands are not only under threat of cyber-attacks, but the Chinese researchers, PhD candidates and students in these institutes may be working as spies for China.

The report suggested that collaborating with China pose a threat to national security and prosperity in different ways. It further added that China might target companies and knowledge institutes in the Netherlands to gather high-value knowledge and technology that it can use for its own economic, political and military gains.

The report said, “persons who state actors think have the potential to end up in knowledgeable or influential positions are being used to spy on us. These are people with access to academic or research institutes, like researchers, PhD candidates, and students.”

China is using legal means to explore vulnerabilities

The Dutch report further suggested that Chinese espionage is happening on both an illegal and legal front. China is using legal collaborations with Knowledge institutes in the Netherlands to explore possible ways to access high-value information. These legal partnerships might provide resources to China that they can use in unwanted ways.

Axios quoted Ties Dams, a research fellow at the Clingendael China Centre at the Clingendael Institute, saying, “Behind the scenes, China is rising on the agenda of the Dutch intelligence services. Spearheaded by the AIVD and NCTV, the focus is on economic espionage and political influence.” He further added that the intelligence community has pointed out that China should be on the priority considering elections in Match.

China is trying to get hold of critical infrastructure, says Finland

Antti Pelttari, the head of the Security Police (Supo) of Finland recently said that dictatorships (pointing towards China and Russia) are trying to take control over the critical infrastructure in Finland that includes telecommunications, energy, water distribution, airports, roads and ports. During his visit to YLE’s Yamkösaamu on Saturday, Pelttari said, “Authoritarian states are trying to catch up with Finland’s critical infrastructure.”

Pelttari said that China has openly shown interest to become a leading superpower. In such situations, a superpower will have global interests in other countries that include Finland. It has to be taken into account that there is no difference between state and private business life. The influence on a state or a business can affect the other directly.

Pelttari, while giving an example of Huawei as a supplier of the 5G network in Finland, opposed the idea as a whole. He said, “We need to think that at the end of the decade, this 5G network will be the platform on which society as a whole operates in practice. That is why it is important that its network is not managed by those who can make an impact.”

He further added that 5G and other critical infrastructures such as energy networks should not be opened to authoritarians states [like China]. Such states can cripple the telecommunications, transport, electricity distribution, payment system and more in Finland that will adversely affect the daily lives of the people and activities of the society. He said, “Now we are talking about opening the front door in 5G, because the equipment supplier must have access to the entire network through updates and others. This poses that risk.”

Warning the decision-makers, Pelttari said that the one who will be controlling the network would have the power to paralyze all intelligent networks, including hospitals; thus, the government should not buy critical parts of the infrastructure from an authoritarian state.

Canadian spy agency head warned about the serious strategic threat by China

During an address to the Centre for International Governance Innovation on February 9, Canadian Security Intelligence Service Director David Vigneault said that China poses a strategic threat to Canada. This was the second time Vigneault made such a remark against China, identifying it as a problem actor.

He said that the state actors are seeking access to business secrets and sensitive data that holds a significant threat to the prosperity and sovereignty of Canada. He said, “To be clear, the threat does not come from the Chinese people, but rather the Government of China that is pursuing a strategy for a geopolitical advantage on all fronts – economic, technological, political, and military – and using all elements of state power to carry out activities that are a direct threat to our national security and sovereignty. We all must strengthen our defences.”

According to Vigneault, biopharmaceutical and health, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, ocean technology, and aerospace sectors are among the most vulnerable sectors that can experience attacks from state-sponsored hackers.

Vigneault said that 20% of the data collected was not available in public. He said that the Canadian companies in almost every sector, including biopharma, health, AI, quantum computing, ocean technology and aerospace sectors, are vulnerable to the threats. The state-sponsored actors target emerging technologies in these sectors, especially those that are developed within academia and small start-ups. He further added that as academia and start-ups seek financial and technological collaborations, they are more vulnerable to threats.

A report last year had said that a Chinese firm called China Revival has created a database called Overseas Key Information Data Base (OKIDB) that contains 2.4 million individuals, 650,000 institutes, 2.3 billion news articles, and 2.1 billion social media posts. Most of the information in this database is available in the public domain, but according to researchers, 10 to 20 per cent of the data available in the database is not available in the public domain.

US, India and others have shown concerns over Chinese interference

In August 2018, then-President of the United States, Donald Trump, barred the US departments from using equipment manufactured by ZTE and Huawei, citing national security reasons. Former President of US Donald Trump applauded Indian company Reliance Jio for working on Chinese-equipment-free 5G network. In July 2020, the UK government said that the 5G networks would be Huawei from starting from January 2021 to the end of 2027.

In the last few years, while emphasizing on Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyaan, India is extensively working on reducing Chinese penetration in the Indian market. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has initiated several projects to boost manufacturing within India to ensure the least possible connection to the Chinese firms. The Indian government has also cancelled several projects that Chinese companies were handling.

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Staff reporter at OpIndia

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