China Investing in Open-Source Intelligence Collection on the U.S.

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China’s intelligence agencies are investing deeply in open-source intelligence to learn more about the capabilities of the American military in the Pacific and beyond, according to a new report.

The analysis, by the threat intelligence company Recorded Future, details efforts by China’s government and companies to collect publicly available data from the Pentagon, think tanks and private firms — information Beijing’s military can use to help plan for a potential conflict with the United States.

American service members flying a Navy reconnaissance plane over the South China Sea in 2018.Credit…Adam Dean for The New York Times

Why It Matters: Beijing’s open-source intelligence collection could give it an advantage.

As the relationship between the United States and China has become more adversarial, both countries are investing more in their intelligence collection capabilities.

With Beijing’s investments in big data management, mining publicly available sources of information could give China an advantage in collecting intelligence on the United States and its allies.

While autocratic countries like China hide information about their military, the United States — as a democracy that tries to be responsive to its public — puts out a plethora of information about its military capabilities, doctrine and planning.

China can mine that information, looking for material it can use to its own military advantages. For example, the report details some of the work one prominent Chinese open-source intelligence company has done to analyze publicly available insights from the Office of Net Assessment, the Pentagon’s in-house think tank. Recorded Future also outlined how China has tried to gather information put out by the Naval War College in Newport, R.I.

“The U.S. Naval War College has a China Maritime Studies Institute, and it produces a lot of open-source research on China,” said Zoe Haver, a threat intelligence analyst with Recorded Future. “This is done in an academic setting, but ultimately foreign governments consider this valuable intelligence.”

Military officials did not immediately comment on the report’s findings.

Background: China is mining information on the U.S. military.

China’s secret intelligence-gathering abilities have grown in leaps and bounds in recent decades, and Beijing’s investment in open-source information has intensified over the last decade.

The definition of open-source intelligence is broad, but Recorded Future looked at information that the intelligence agencies of China’s People’s Liberation Army were using to help them make plans and develop the military.

Recorded Future has examined contracts that the army has issued to private Chinese companies to gather a range of open-source information, including material about the U.S. military and its work on the defense of Taiwan.

“The P.L.A. very much assumes the United States will in some form intervene in a Taiwan conflict, and they work very hard to prepare for that type of scenario,” Ms. Haver said.

Much of what Beijing is mining from open-source data may well be available in one Chinese spy agency or another. But China’s intelligence agencies are walled off from one another and do not share information, according to Recorded Future’s analysts. And it may be easier for parts of the P.L.A.’s intelligence arms to develop open-source information about American capabilities than to request classified information from a sister spy agency.

What’s Next: Open-source collection presents a challenge for democracies.

Recorded Future acknowledges there are security concerns given the information the United States and its allies make public, but cutting off broad access to the data may not be the answer.

Instead, Ms. Haver said Recorded Future hoped awareness of Chinese open-source intelligence gathering would help private-sector companies, the military and other government agencies better manage that risk and make it harder for automatic web crawlers to scrape information from public databases or websites. She also encouraged private companies to conduct due diligence about Chinese firms trying to purchase access to their information.

“At the end of the day, we don’t expect Western countries to close off their information environments,” Ms. Haver said. “That would not even be a good thing. We value openness.”

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