China ‘Weaponizing’ Americans’ Personal Data: Expert

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BY Rita Li Epoch Times Staff and David Zhang

A cyber intelligence expert said China “is weaponizing [Americans’] personal information” through stolen data and artificial intelligence (AI) and called on the United States to take reciprocal action against the Chinese regime.

“We see a weakening China, which is not what they are telling the world they are [economically],” said Bob Gourley, a cyber intelligence pioneer and former chief technology officer at the Defense Intelligence Agency. “It’s going to put a lot of stress and pressure on them to find new sources of revenue.”

“These new sources of revenue are things that include exploitation of intellectual property, more ransomware, more direct theft electronically,” he told NTD earlier this month. “I see the near future as being one of a lot of dangers from Chinese surveillance,” he said.

That surveillance is used in AI that helps to coordinate and correlate user data, and can be utilized to analyze and attribute things down to an individual, according to Gourley.

“This is a real threat when a surveillance state like China puts [its] computing power behind it.”

Gourley said high-tech surveillance states can take advantage of the world’s social media data, calling it “new threats” to the world today. Through data people publicly share, AI can produce a profile of what anyone has been doing, where they are, and who they associate with.

Although the communist regime in China has cut off access to Facebook, Twitter, Google, and YouTube to its own citizens, its officials, state-run media, and hackers can openly use and have become more active on both Twitter and Facebook, a think tank report showed last year.

Facebook revealed in March 2021 that it had blocked Chinese hackers from using the social media platform to track Uyghur activists living abroad, including journalists and dissidents living across the United States, Australia, Canada, Syria, Turkey, and Kazakhstan.

Some compromised users’ devices and some created fake Facebook accounts to befriend a target and trick them into clicking on a malicious link that may compromise their device.

Epoch Times Photo
A security man passes a booth of Google at the first China International Import Expo in Shanghai, China, on Nov. 5, 2018. (Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images)

“If it makes us timid and afraid to speak out, it hurts us,” Gourley said. “Protecting our freedom of speech requires mitigating this threat of global surveillance from China.”

He said the United States should treat private information as if it were a weapon against China’s global surveillance over individuals.

“Because they are weaponizing our personal information,” he said.

Digital Belt and Road Initiative

While China harvests public information on social media, it also gains access to private data by providing IT and computing power to recipient countries, according to Gourley.

“[Countries] have to pay for it, they sign long-term contracts for it,” Gourley said. “But when that’s put in place, they rarely understand the fact that China now has access to their data.”

He draws a comparison with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI, also called One Belt One Road), a state-backed global infrastructure plan that critics said was to grow the country’s geopolitical power overseas in the name of economic cooperation.

The intelligence expert described such investments and partnerships as a lesser-known “digital version” of the BRI, to obtain foreign data.

“This digital Belt and Road Initiative is feeding the surveillance state with data, and that data, of course, is the fuel for artificial intelligence, which is a key solution for their surveillance needs,” he said.

The stolen data can empower the regime’s AI for both profit and military purposes.

Early last year, the National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) said that Beijing has used investments in American biotech companies and partnerships with hospitals and universities to gain access to U.S. health care and genetic data.

It comes as Chinese genetics giant BGI Group has drawn scrutiny over its aggressive efforts to push its COVID-19 test kits and support labs around the world, raising data security concerns.

Vast amounts of genomic information can fuel developments in the cutting-edge field of precision medicine, allowing China to overtake the United States to become a global leader in biotech, NCSC said in a fact sheet. Such data can also be weaponized to target individuals in the country for intelligence and military operations.

Epoch Times Photo
A Chinese national flag flutters near the surveillance cameras mounted on a lamp post in Tiananmen Square in Beijing on March 15, 2019. (Andy Wong/AP Photo)

China’s newest five-year plan covering the period until the end of 2025 mentions “genetic and biotechnology research” as a key area essential to national security and development.

“All of that requires a sophisticated technical talent base,” Gourley said. “That same sophisticated technical talent base is being applied today to surveillance, which is all related under the control of the Chinese Communist Party.”

“And I think it really makes for a dangerous time these next two or three years,” he added.

He urged the U.S. government to start thinking about that asymmetry and cut off Beijing’s access to foreign servers.

“If there are rules in China about them accessing our systems openly, shouldn’t we put the same rules in place here? And I think that’s a very fair question to ask.”

Last week, Beijing’s cyberspace watchdog said starting Feb. 15, Chinese platform companies holding the personal data of more than a million users will go through a cyber security review before listing shares overseas.

Rita Li

Rita Li is a reporter with The Epoch Times, focusing on China-related topics. She began writing for the Chinese-language edition in 2018.

David Zhang

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