Imagine you’re sitting down in an upscale bar, ruminating on your unsatisfying, low-paying job. A well-dressed man sits down next to you and after some small talk, tells you something inviting.
“A new position is opening, and guess what?” he says. “You’re just what we’re looking for. You can even have some cash up front. What do we want in return? Why, nothing at all. We just want you to succeed.”
Those lines aren’t from your rescuing angel. They’re the lines commonly used by global spy departments while trying to string someone up as a new puppet.
Through a handful of films, the FBI is now trying to educate the public about espionage—particularly the type aimed at tricking Americans and harming the U.S. economy.
“It takes place every day,” said an FBI representative who requested not to be named, referring to the types of espionage attempts shown in the films. “One of our missions is to protect the public against these threats.”
The latest FBI film, “The Company Man: Protecting America’s Secrets,” which is based on a true story, tells of Chinese spies trying to steal intellectual property from a U.S. company.
Randall Coleman, assistant director of the FBI’s counterintelligence division, said during a May 13 hearing, “In the real-life case, a group of conspirators tried to recruit a veteran employee to steal the trade secrets they needed to build a competing plant in China.”
Coleman said one of the current problems with economic espionage is that companies try to solve it internally, rather than contact law enforcement.
He shared his hope that “the film will raise the awareness of audiences about the threat of economic espionage””and encourage them to report cases of espionage.
The 37-minute film’s message is timely, as it coincides with a Monday announcement by the Justice Department and FBI of charges against China’s military hackers.
According to the FBI representative, the timing wasn’t intentional—the film is technically not public yet and is being aired at universities and businesses. Yet, she and others see the growing attention as something of value.
She said understanding the threats from foreign spies is something “we think can benefit the public.” In regard to economic espionage, in particular, she added, “It’s costing people money and jobs.”
By its nature, espionage has always been something hidden from the public eye. During the Cold War there were some efforts to educate the public about threats from spies, yet until recently the topic had mostly fallen off the public radar.
The FBI films are essentially like the old Cold War films about espionage threats, only done by today’s professional standards. What they reveal are common methods used by spies.
The FBI called the case portrayed in its last film, “Game of Pawns,” a “textbook case of recruitment.” It relayed the true story of Glenn Duffie Shriver who was studying abroad in Shanghai in 2004, and was recruited by Chinese spies.
The FBI film prior to that was “Betrayed.” The Emmy Award-winning short film about a government employee who commits espionage is meant to show warning signs that a co-worker may have been compromised by foreign spies.
Of the films, “Game of Pawns” is currently the only one that’s publicly available. The FBI representative said they posted the film to YouTube since it was intended for college students studying abroad. The online success of the film, which currently has more than 77,000 views, has them considering a more-public release of their latest film.
Globally the topic of espionage has come front and center, and will likely only grow from here. Public awareness of global spying is now beginning to expand beyond what was leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, and a more complete picture is now being drawn.
“Our foreign adversaries and competitors are determined to acquire, steal, or transfer a broad range of trade secrets in which the United States maintains a definitive innovation advantage,” said Coleman during the recent hearing.
He said that, moving forward, companies will need to become more active in reporting espionage, and employees will need to be better educated on methods of foreign spies.
He added, “Protecting the nation’s economy from this threat is not something the FBI can accomplish on its own.”