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China digital spying: Smith's precautions

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6 June 2012 09:36

John Garnaut reveals today that Defence Minister Stephen Smith and his entourage are taking no chances during their visit to China:

The Herald has learnt Mr Smith and his entourage left mobile phones and laptops in Hong Kong before proceeding to mainland China, after such devices were reportedly compromised during previous ministerial visits. His staff, including media advisers, were given fresh phones, with different numbers, for the duration.

The anti-espionage precautions, arranged by Australia's Defence Department, are rare if not unprecedented for Australian ministerial visits to nations other than China.

Seems like this is becoming standard practice for China travel. The NY Times reported in February that government officials, company representatives and even think tankers routinely take extraordinary measures to reduce the risks of digital espionage in China:

...United States companies, government agencies and organizations are...imposing do-not-carry rules. Representative Mike Rogers, the Michigan Republican who is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said its members could bring only “clean” devices to China and were forbidden from connecting to the government’s network while abroad. As for himself, he said he traveled “electronically naked.”

At the State Department, employees get specific instruction on how to secure their devices in Russia and China, and are briefed annually on general principles of security. At the Brookings Institution, Mr. Lieberthal advises companies that do business in China. He said that there was no formal policy mandating that employees leave their devices at home, “but they certainly educate employees who travel to China and Russia to do so.”

McAfee, the security company, said that if any employee’s device was inspected at the Chinese border, it could never be plugged into McAfee’s network again. Ever. “We just wouldn’t take the risk,” said Simon Hunt, a vice president.

At AirPatrol, a company based in Columbia, Md., that specializes in wireless security systems, employees take only loaner devices to China and Russia, never enable Bluetooth and always switch off the microphone and camera.

Photo by Flickr user telekin.

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