IS industrial espionage something to worry about on a business trip? That obviously depends where you're going. Homeland Security Newswire (HSNW), not a government website, but a news service in "the business of homeland security", has concerns about China, and offered some advice last week to anyone thinking of visiting Shanghai's World Expo. Leave your laptop at home (to avoid it being compromised); carry a disposable mobile phone (for the same reason); and beware agents of foreign powers (ie, China) on the look-out for new recruits.
The article, titled “US worried about China industrial espionage activities during World's Expo", turns out to be largely worked up from a Fox News blog entry. Readers might find them good for a giggle—though, while neither article could be called substantive, neither is short. Here is the gist:
China will stop at nothing to steal trade secrets (Russia is also singled out)—witness a 2008 US intelligence report, whose authority Fox backs up with mostly anonymous comments from American officials past and present. Businessmen foolhardy enough to bring their own electronic devices run the risk of electronic bugging by hotel staff. "A hotel maid could simply install a file on a guest’s computer," Fox warns, paraphrasing Marion "Spike" Bowman, "a veteran of the intelligence community". Open forums like the Shanghai Expo account for 4% of "reported suspicious incidents", we are warned.
As with many a conspiratorial piece, the Fox article contains clues to its own unravelling. For instance, US intelligence officials apparently preached caution to businessmen prior to the Olympics, too, but:
Bowman said he was unaware of any serious incidents or espionage activities during the Olympic Games in Beijing, which were also mentioned as a "high-threat environment" in the 2008 intelligence report to Congress.
Evidence that "countries hosting global events" may attempt to recruit new spies is furnished by reference to the case of Walter Kendall Myers, a State Department intelligence officer who visited Cuba in the early 1970s and went on (with his wife) to spy for the Cubans until his capture last year. Patriots would be best advised, it seems, to avoid Commie-run countries altogether.
Spying on businesses clearly does occur. In China's case this was illustrated recently by the Google hacking affair, and the blow-up last year over allegations of Chinese attacks on German companies that one counter-intelligence official estimated could cost them €50 billion ($64 billion) a year. But Gulliver doubts the risks posed by visiting a trade event are as serious as scaremongers imply. Mundane as it may seem, intellectual-property abuses in China, though a persistent problem, are generally of a fairly flagrant variety. Two alleged Expo-related examples for you: the last-minute shelving of a song recorded for the Expo by Jackie Chan and others after netizens noticed its similarity to a 1997 Japanese ballad; and speculation that Haibao, the Expo mascot, is a rip-off of the logo of an eponymous Chinese white-goods maker.
If readers think that this an overly sanguine assessment, however, or can share precautions that they take when travelling to trade fairs or otherwise, please do let us know.