Authorities in the German state of Baden-Württemberg have voiced concern about Chinese involvement in multiple cases of industrial espionage in recent years, according to local media reports.
On Nov. 3, Baden-Wüttemberg interior ministry officials told reporters that of eight cases in the last six years, six featured Chinese involvement.
Famous for its industry and technology, Baden-Württemberg, located in southwestern Germany, is home to a number of storied enterprises like Daimler, Porsche, and Zeiss.
Responding to a September parliamentary inquiry by Germany’s Free Democratic Party, the Ministry of the Interior, Digitalization, and Migration of Baden-Württemberg detailed the eight cases that had been opened by state police since 2012. Of the cases, six are still being investigated, and four are being reviewed by the German federal attorney general.
One case, from 2013, described a cyberattack that targeted an auto manufacturer in Stuttgart, the state capital. Spying on Germany’s companies can help Chinese firms save billions of dollars in development costs.
According to DW Akademie, Germany loses 50 billion euros (about $57 billion) a year to industrial espionage, 7 billion euros ($8 billion) of which is lost by companies in Baden-Württemberg.
Walter Opfermann, a Baden-Württemberg expert in industrial espionage prevention, told The Guardian in 2009 that China wanted to become a world power by 2020. “For that, they need a speedy and intensive transfer of high-level technological information which is available in developed industrial lands,” he said.
According to Opfermann, China employs a million intelligence agents focused on acquiring German technologies in the fields of auto manufacturing, renewable energies, chemistry, communication, optics, X-ray technology, machinery, materials research, and armaments.
German radio station Südwestrundfunk reported that spies have a few chief means of stealing technology. Aside from visiting the targeted German companies directly, they also hack the firms’ computers or establish personal relations with key employees, who are encouraged to divulge sensitive information.
According to the report, Chinese spies send emails to lists of German employees. Once the email is opened, it downloads a trojan virus that automatically installs itself on the employee’s computer and copies the contents.
Chinese spies also register fake social media accounts and try to get in contact with their German targets. Their messages, too, have built-in viruses designed to open the door for hackers.
Germany’s Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV), the country’s domestic intelligence agency, issued a warning in December 2017 that China was using fake accounts on LinkedIn and other social media sites to spy on individuals such as politicians, high-ranking officials, and staff at other high-value institutions. More than 10,000 Germans were contacted by Chinese agents using fake accounts, according to the BfV.
“Chinese intelligence services are active on networks like LinkedIn and have been trying for a while to extract information and find intelligence sources in this way,” a spokesperson told the Telegraph on Dec. 10, 2017.
Die Welt reported that Chinese espionage target German companies of all sizes. It quoted Bloomberg October’s report as saying that Chinese spy chips are found in hardware used by American tech giants Apple, Amazon, and Super Micro. Though these companies have denied that their hardware was compromised, the report brought the issue of data security into focus.
Opfermann believes that Chinese espionage has the potential of “sabotaging whole chunks of infrastructure,” which “poses a danger not only just for Germany but also for critical infrastructure worldwide,” he told the Guardian.
The Chinese regime has used similar methods of intelligence gathering in other European countries. In October, French newspaper Le Figaro published a report detailing the French authorities’ concerns about Chinese attempts to recruit thousands of local individuals, including businessmen, scientists, and politicians.