Australian Spy Agency Thwarts Espionage Attempt by Chinese-Linked Academic

Australian Spy Agency Thwarts Espionage Attempt by Chinese-Linked Academic - Beijing has been accused of intellectual property theft—on a sophisticated scale—“well beyond traditional espionage.”

Australian Spy Agency Thwarts Espionage Attempt by Chinese-Linked Academic

Australian Spy Agency Thwarts Espionage Attempt by Chinese-Linked Academic

An attempt by a Chinese academic to infiltrate a prestigious institution has been foiled by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO).

ASIO chief Mike Burgess made the revelation during a Five Eyes summit in California on Oct. 18, saying his intelligence agency "detected and disrupted” the plot in September.

“The plot involved a visiting professor, a genuine academic who had also been recruited by Chinese intelligence,” Mr. Burgess said. “Their spymaster gave them money and a shopping list of intelligence requirements and sent them to Australia.”

“The academic even set his PhD students research assignments in line with his intelligence requirements.”

Mr. Burgess said he took a personal interest in the case upon discovering that one of the research topics was none other than himself.

“But if they were looking for the next Mark Zuckerberg, they picked the wrong geek,” he said, adding that the Chinese academic was removed from Australia “before the harm could be done.”

The news of the foiled plot comes as former Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Australia would stand with Taiwan and defend the island from any threat of force or aggression by Beijing.
“One can reasonably ask, if Taiwan, then what and who is next?” Mr. Morrison during his visit to Taiwan on Oct. 10. “The future of Taiwan is inextricably linked to all our futures and the peace, security, and freedom of the world we live in.”

Beijing Accused of Intellectual Property Theft

Mr. Burgess also accused Beijing of intellectual property theft on a sophisticated scale “well beyond traditional espionage.”

The spy chief said Beijing’s “ruthless business model” seeks commercial advantage by stealing intellectual property first.

“Then they use talent programs, joint ventures, and acquisitions to harvest the expertise required to exploit the IP,” he said.

“Sometimes the technology is put to military use, often it’s given to favoured companies to mass produce it, under-cutting and undermining the innovator.”

In August, hundreds of Chinese satellites hovered over Australia, collecting information on military training activities during the “Exercise Malabar” military training exercises between allies that were held in Sydney.

James Bennett from EOS Space Systems said that the Chinese satellites would monitor military capabilities and equipment, including operations on the ground.

The U.S. intelligence chief, FBI Director Christopher Wray, said the fact that the Five Eyes alliance—made up of the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand—made the “unprecedented” joint call was to confront the "unprecedented threat" Beijing posed to innovation across the world.

"China has long targeted businesses with a web of techniques all at once: cyber intrusions, human intelligence operations, seemingly innocuous corporate investments and transactions," Mr. Wray said. "Every strand of that web had become more brazen, and more dangerous."

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(L–R) Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Director-General Mike Burgess, Canadian Security Intelligence Service Director David Vigneault, FBI Director Christopher Wray, New Zealand Security Intelligence Service Director-General of Security Andrew Hampton, and MI5 Director General Ken McCallum pose for a group photo during the Emerging Technology and Securing Innovation Summit in Palo Alto, Calif, on Oct. 16, 2023. (FBI/Handout via PA)
(L–R) Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Director-General Mike Burgess, Canadian Security Intelligence Service Director David Vigneault, FBI Director Christopher Wray, New Zealand Security Intelligence Service Director-General of Security Andrew Hampton, and MI5 Director General Ken McCallum pose for a group photo during the Emerging Technology and Securing Innovation Summit in Palo Alto, Calif, on Oct. 16, 2023. (FBI/Handout via PA)
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The Five Eyes officials said Beijing was stealing secrets in various sectors, from quantum technology and robotics, to biotechnology and artificial intelligence.

However, Beijing has denied the allegations, saying that the communist regime was committed to intellectual property protection.

"We firmly oppose the groundless allegations and smears towards China and hope the relevant parties can view China’s development objectively and fairly," a spokesperson from the Chinese embassy told Reuters.

Five Eyes Denounces Beijing Cyber Attack on Critical Infrastructure

In May, Australia joined the Five Eyes Alliance in condemning a cyberattack by Beijing on critical infrastructure networks across the United States.

The joint statement by the alliance was issued after it was discovered that a “cluster of activity” was associated with the CCP’s hacking group, Volt Typhoon—a state-sponsored actor typically focused on espionage and information gathering.

The security alliance also believes these techniques “could” be applied to other sectors worldwide.

The Australian Cyber Security Centre (ACSC) said one of the primary tactics used by the cyber actor, in this case, Beijing, is “living off the land”—where the actor blends in with normal Windows systems to evade detection. This tactic exploits legitimate pathways instead of malware.

“They can avoid endpoint detection and response (EDR) products that would provide an alert on the introduction of third-party applications to the host and limit the amount of activity that is captured in default logging configurations,” the Five Eyes said.

“Many of the behavioural indicators included can also be legitimate system administration commands that appear in benign activity. Care should be taken not to assume that findings are malicious without further investigation or other indications of compromise.”

Meanwhile, Senator James Paterson, the shadow minister for Home Affairs and Cyber Security, said he was concerned that a large-scale cyberattack on Australia’s critical infrastructure by Beijing could be a possible “precursor to a regional conflict.”
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Senator James Paterson of the centre-right Liberal Party before a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Australia on Sept. 5, 2022. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)
Senator James Paterson of the centre-right Liberal Party before a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Australia on Sept. 5, 2022. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)
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“Something like a blackout across the entire east coast as the energy grid is taken offline; or the national distribution networks that serve the grocery stores that Australians rely on suddenly grinding to a halt; or millions of Australians having their internet and communications cut-off for days at a time; or all of these events happening at the same time,” Mr. Paterson said at the Australian Cyber Conference on Oct. 19.

“These threats are more than just irritating, embarrassing, uncomfortable, and stressful—they are existential.”