People’s Republic of China State-Sponsored Hacking

Unit 61398: China’s Military Hackers

It is believed that a number of massive hacks have been perpetrated by a Chinese military-espionage unit called Unit 61398, which has 100,000 members. It is known for stealing trade secrets and Intellectual Property (IP) from companies such as Westinghouse and US Steel. In 2015, American health insurer Anthem, was hacked and the personal records of nearly 80 million American were compromised. According to the Department of Justice, China is the primary suspect.

In that same year, the US Government Office of Personnel Management (OPM) was hacked and 21.5 million records were stolen including confidential background checks. Specifically targeted information included names, Social Security numbers, dates and places of birth, and addresses. Other sources of information for Chinese government databases on US citizens include hacks of US companies such as United Airlines and hotels such as Marriot Hotels. There have recently been reports of employment sites being used to gather data on Americans. All of this data allows the Chinese government to build a complete picture of the behavior, preferences, and vulnerabilities of hundreds of millions of Americans.

In addition to being used to steal personal data, experts say that the video and photo sharing aspects of social media platform TikTok, would allow China to train its facial recognition capabilities. The types of AI China is working on goes way beyond facial recognition. It also does voice recognition and gait recognition: being able to pick someone out of a crowd by the way they walk.

Because China’s population is more than 90% Han Chinese, their AI does not have the opportunity to practice on different ethnicities, but the US multi-cultural population would be a gold mine for them. One of the concerns is the arrival of that day in which China could use images, videos, and other data from social media posts to compile profiles of US military personnel, which they could then use to program their autonomous weapons.

Extreme Surveillance

China’s social credit score was implemented along with a widespread camera and information network, which allows the Chinese government to keep tabs on citizens and visitors alike, to know their habits, associates and activities. The Coronavirus has helped them step up their data gathering efforts as many subway stations in China have implemented an AI fever screening system developed by Megvii, an AI company founded by Tsinghua University alumni. The same systems can be used for surveillance and intelligence gathering.

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In 2019, China implemented laws restricting the collection and use of genetic and DNA samples from Chinese citizens. Meanwhile, in Xinjiang, the Chinese province which is home to the Uighur Muslims, the Chinese government has implemented wide-sweeping efforts to gather blood and other bio materials to begin sequencing DNA. Along with advanced facial recognition software, this will allow them to keep tighter tabs on their own citizens but ultimately can be used against Americans and other foreigners whose data China has. Chinese scientists are even attempting to use DNA data to predict how someone’s face will look, a process called DNA phenotyping. This means if they have your blood, hair or skin or in some way have your DNA the computer can use the information to produce a photo of you. So far, the photos they are generating are not very detailed but it is obvious that the system will continue to improve, becoming more accurate.

Violating International Standards

The New York Times reported that “China’s Ministry of Public Security, and at least two Chinese scientists working with the ministry on DNA phenotyping technology have received funding from respected institutions in Europe. International scientific journals have published their findings without examining the origin of the DNA used in the studies or vetting the ethical questions raised by collecting such samples in Xinjiang.”

Under international standards and codes of ethics, the blood or DNA material should have been given voluntarily by the subjects. But Human Rights Watch discovered that the blood and other bio samples were taken as part of a mandatory health check upon arrival in Xinjiang Muslim detention camps and that the subjects were not free to refuse. By stealing blood and tissue from the 1.5 million Uighur Muslims in detention camps, Beijing is building man-hunting technology, combining DNA with facial recognition, and they will soon be able to map faces by ethnicity.

According to Human Rights Watch, a US biotechnology company based out of Massachusetts called Thermo Fisher Scientific supplied Xinjiang authorities with some of the DNA sequencers used in the data-collection effort. Every time a plane lands in China, foreigners have to have finger prints taken, photo takens and of course present their passport and say where they are going. Each night that you reside in the People’s Republic of China, your lodging has to be registered with the police. This means that China already has our faces, fingerprints and travel habits on record. All they need now is our DNA. In addition to the Uighur DNA, China is believed to have the largest DNA database in the world with more than 80 million DNA profiles.

NPR reported that US top technology university MIT collaborated with a Chinese company called iFlytek to create voice recognition technology to be used in Xinjiang.  The same report noted that a Yale professor, working on a DNA project to identify people by ethnicity, collaborated with Chinese scientists from Chinese Ministry of Public Security. The professor collaborated with them for over a year in a laboratory where they shared DNA samples. Now, China has the samples and data they obtained from the American who has had the great honor of furthering the scientific knowledge of the Communist Party of China.

In February 2020, Attorney General William Barr announced that the U.S. had charged four Chinese military hackers for the Equifax hack, which netted them the data of 500 million Marriott hotel guests. Attorney General Bar and cyber experts blame China’s Ministry of State Security for many of the largest hacks but, in the case of Equifax, the culprits were People’s Liberation Army officers, guilty of economic espionage. In similar cases of industrial espionage, the US Justice Department has previously charged China with trying to steal high-tech trade secrets.

Legal Ramifications

The outcome of the Tiktok controversy, so far, is that all branches of the US military and Transportation Security Administration (TSA) have banned soldiers and agents from using Tiktok on government phones. As for Huawei, after the US blocked Huawei and ZTE under the National Defense Authorization Act, Huawei took the US government to court. In the end, U.S. District Judge Amos Mazzant ruled in favor of the United States, finding that Congress had acted appropriately under The Defense Authorization Act.