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Trial of former CIA officer reveals Chinese spying tactics

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

PARIS -- Chinese spying has been making news almost everywhere these days. A trial began in Virginia last week for a former Central Intelligence Agency officer accused of spying for China.

Here in France, two retired foreign intelligence service officers have been held since December, accused of "acts of extreme gravity" against the country. It has been widely reported that they were working on behalf of China.

And according to a Sydney Morning Herald report from December, "The most active foreign intelligence actor in Australia is China."

State-sponsored spying isn't new, and it's hardly surprising that China, like most other countries, is trying to gather as much intelligence as it possibly can about both friends and foes. However, increased globalization and advancements in technology have impacted the spy game.

Kevin Mallory, 60, the former CIA officer accused of espionage, testified that a Chinese recruiter first contacted him in early 2017 through the professional networking site LinkedIn. Mallory, who billed himself on LinkedIn as a "competitive intelligence and international operations professional" for "government and private sector," would strike even a clueless foreign intelligence officer as a potentially useful target -- the kind of "connector" who might have access to information that would be attractive to foreign interests.

The Chinese are well aware that America is rife with former defense and intelligence officers and contractors who still have high-level security clearances and access to people who work in government agencies. These former government workers often bill themselves online as consultants trying to make a buck. So it's hardly surprising that Mallory was contacted under the pretext of business.

The Chinese client claimed to work for a think tank, the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. That's an actual think tank, but it raises questions about the real identities and agendas of the people who work for think tanks. Intelligence officers have long used think tanks as covers for their activities. In the mid-'90s, France expelled five Americans on suspicion of spying after French counterintelligence identified a CIA officer working under non-official cover as a think-tank representative while attempting to collect intelligence on French economic and political interests.

What's new, however, is the ease and speed with which potential espionage targets can be identified, assessed and contacted. And that's not all that technology can facilitate in the world of espionage.

After being contacted online, Mallory traveled to Shanghai, according to the indictment. There, he was introduced to this potential new client, from whom he allegedly accepted payments. Mallory's defense team claims that around the same time, Mallory contacted former CIA co-workers in an attempt to tell the agency about his dealings with the Chinese.

Soon after, according to the indictment, the Chinese client gave Mallory a Samsung Galaxy Note phone for "secure communications" purposes. He later used that phone to transfer two classified documents to his clients.

In early May, Mallory allegedly sent this message to his Chinese contact: "You can send the funds broken into 4 equal payments over 4 consecutive days... When you agree I will send you the bank I.g. instructions."

Days later, according to the indictment, Mallory complained to his Chinese contact about the system through which information was being exchanged -- "This system sucks it's too cumbersome" -- and expressed uncertainty about whether "pictures documents" he had sent were received.

According to court testimony, Mallory's special Chinese phone featured an application that could integrate documents into an image before securely transmitting them. But an engineer who analyzed the phone for the FBI believes that the encrypted application crashed, rendering Mallory's communications with the Chinese visible when he met voluntarily with CIA and FBI.

Ironically, one of the main objectives of Chinese spying is to improve the country's technology. (Perhaps they should focus on encryption and chat application technology?)

While technology may be an important component of the modern spy game, China's intelligence-gathering methods could use some refinement. But if China is able to make serious inroads into the West via espionage, it's because there are people in our wonderful capitalist system willing to open the gate if the price is right.

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