Countering China Requires a New Approach to Counterintelligence
The Chinese balloon moving over the continental United States last month, as we know now, was not some rogue surveillance operation gone wrong. Instead, it was part of a broader surveillance program that China directed over the past few years. This should come as no surprise.
China and its leaders are clear about what their national priorities are, and once determined, the country uses all aspects of its military and civilian infrastructure to achieve its goals. That’s the case with this surveillance program, and it’s also the case with the long-standing effort to steal the intellectual property of U.S.-based companies, particularly in strategic areas including quantum computing, AI, autonomous vehicles, drones or even rare-earth metals and semiconductors. The cost of China’s activities against U.S. businesses alone has been pegged at $600 billion a year.
The United States finds itself in a multi-front battle with China for both geopolitical and technological dominance. Yet, while China has built a strategic program of Military-Civil Fusion, the U.S., up to this point, has failed to meet the moment. We’re still locked in a Cold War mentality of nation-state versus nation-state.
Don’t take our word for it. The Senate Intelligence Committee just a few months ago released a damning report on the state of our nation’s security. It is a broad indictment of our country’s ability to protect itself from foreign intelligence entities or, as everyone else in the world calls them, spies. The report concludes: “The U.S. [counterintelligence] enterprise is not postured to confront the whole-of-society threat landscape facing the country today.”
Why? Because our adversaries — not just China, but also Russia, Iran, North Korea and others — no longer just target the U.S. government; they target U.S. interests broadly including global businesses, nongovernmental organizations, research institutions and national labs. They’re working day after day to steal our technology, compromise business and academic leaders, and win the battle for the strategic enterprises of the future.
So what should we do?
The United States and our allies clearly need to dramatically rethink our approach to counterintelligence, both in terms of national assets and from a private-sector perspective.
Today, it is no longer simply a government challenge, but one that all organizations must confront, especially those that intersect with national security. And in today’s hyper-competitive world, there are few if any industries or disciplines without a national security nexus.
There’s good news in this battle. Over the past few years, we’ve witnessed the birth of a private-sector intelligence community filling the gaps for many organizations that find themselves under siege but without adequate protection from the government. Government transformation and the growth of the private sector intelligence companies are both necessary and critical to addressing the counterintelligence challenges.
China’s Military-Civil Fusion simultaneously supports its economic and military modernizations. Stealing intellectual property and recruiting foreign-trained scientists is a core part of this strategy. Talk to nearly any CISO of a global company or security leader of a national lab, and they will tell you story after story about PRC efforts to compromise their data, people and supply chains.
Meanwhile, in the run-up to Russia’s war against Ukraine, the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency released a “Shields Up” warning, saying, “[e]very organization — large and small — must be prepared to respond to disruptive cyber incidents.” The message is clear — businesses are on the frontlines and are being targeted by Russian state-sponsored groups, so get ready.
Yet, our counterintelligence approach is mired in the past — we still rely on the structures and strategies built during the Cold War and the war on terror.
Enter the private sector. These companies — who think of themselves primarily as security, data and risk management companies, rather than counterintelligence services — develop platforms and products to protect organizations from nefarious government activity. Their solutions are largely preventive rather than reactive, thereby reducing the impact to businesses. That, in a nutshell, is the new counterintelligence. And a new counterintelligence is necessary and vital.
The private sector must be an integral part of our nation’s strategy to counter the nefarious activities of foreign governments. But we should understand that private sector approaches will differ from traditional government imperatives. Both the U.S. government and U.S. businesses are working to stymie efforts by our adversaries to steal valuable information or manipulate a company to work against its interests. However, their methods for doing this differ substantially.
This burgeoning relationship between the U.S. government and private companies will not always be an easy one to navigate, especially when short-term goals differ. But the reality is that government and business leaders agree that the threat posed by our adversaries is existential. Either we figure out a way to work together to address it through a whole-of-society model, or American interests, and those of the free world, will suffer greatly.
Greg Levesque is the co-founder and CEO of Strider, which works with Fortune 500 companies and other organizations to identify, assess and respond to the risks of nation-state sponsored commercial activity. Greg has advised U.S. and European government agencies on issues of economic statecraft and countering foreign influence within industry. You can reach Greg on LinkedIn.
Holden Triplett is a founder of Trenchcoat Advisors LLC and is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service, where he teaches a course on Chinese Intelligence, Security and Influence. Previously, he worked at the FBI for more than 15 years, including serving as director for Counterintelligence at the National Security Council and as the FBI’s senior official in the People’s Republic of China. You can reach Holden on LinkedIn.