Silicon Valley Spies

In this day and age, Silicon Valley is perceived to be origination point of the world’s greatest and most innovative startups.  The area itself is pictured as a place for prominent opportunities, technological growth, and thriving young and fresh minds ready to make their impact on the world.  In reality, the fantasy picture is much brighter than the actual conditions. While at first glance it seems to be all sunshine and butterflies, there are many issues in the area which have caused political uprising, company shut downs, and turmoil as a whole. One of the largest problems currently in the area is the growing target of foreign espionage.

For many years, foreign spies have been showing up in the San Francisco and Silicon Valley area and that still holds true today more than ever.  Due to increasing tensions and aggressiveness from Russia and China, and the increasing concentration of world-leading startups and technology firms, espionage as a whole is finding its roots on the West Coast.

On the East Coast, the threat of foreign espionage certainly exists as spies are on the hunt for diplomatic secrets and political intelligence. The espionage that occurs on the West Coast, more specifically in Silicon Valley, has some similarities but is largely different. While there is still general and political intelligence gathering, a large proportion of the espionage activities incorporate targeted efforts to find trade secrets and uncover emerging technologies.

One of the reasons that espionage it even more complicated in this region is the nature of the spies.  In the traditional sense, spies are based out of embassies and consulates associated with a state-owned business or research institute. Many of these spies are Chinese Nationals or friends of Chinese Nationals who have been pressured to provide technological information or trade secrets to their peers. In this sense, it is much harder to identify what individuals are likely to be spies verses which individuals are simply doing their job. In the words of a Chief Security Officer at a major cloud storage company responsible for maintaining sensitive government contracts, “You get into situations where you have really good, really bright, conscientious people, twisted by their home government.”

What remains abundantly unclear is whether or not the Bay Area or Silicon Valley can handle these new corporate espionage tactics. In most cases, technology firms fail to report political espionage, while businesses and universities are completely ignorant about the threat of espionage at all. Rather than being proactive and instituting additional defensive security and screening measures, these companies simply ignore or do not notice the threat. However, the threat needs to be addressed as it continues to grow bigger and bigger as Silicon Valley continues to dominate the technological world. As one Senior Intelligence Officer says “San Francisco is a trailblazer, you see the changes there and foreign counterintelligence first. Trends emerge there.”

Looking at the parties involved in the espionage, it is clear Russia has had an interest in the region for quite some time. Dating back to the Cold War, Russia attempted to gather information on local military installations and military bases overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge.  As the area has evolved, so have Russia’s tactics.  Russian spies are now primarily focused on obtaining information on technology that can be used for both civilian and military purposes.  In addition, their focus is on technology financed by companies and firms based in that region. One small win for the region regarding espionage relates to their primary target. In the past, espionage activities centered in the San Francisco Consulate; however, the consulate was closed by the Trump Administration in September 2017.  Even with that being true, there are still many alternative ways for Russians to get their hands on valuable, confidential intelligence information.

Russia’s controversial role in the 2016 presidential election has also opened up the espionage conversation. However, many argue the threat posed by China is greater than that posed by Russia. In large part, China is a larger threat due to their more extensive resources. Not only does China dominate Russia economically, but there is a larger presence of Chinese-American communities in the San Francisco area. Often times, efforts are undertaken by special Chinese interests which target future community leaders and politicians who may later become the mayor, governor, or congressmen in that region.

The strategy adopted to perform espionage is much different between Russia and China as China employees a more decentralized strategy. On one hand, China draws from a large population pool to achieve its objectives and targets a wide variety of individuals who may be susceptible to backing their nation or committing espionage. Additionally, their efforts are not targeted, rather they attempt to grab as much information as possible, as quickly as possible, through as many channels as possible. Conversely, Russia employees more discreet methods utilizing selected individuals and targeting specific technologies or companies.

With all that being said, it is clear that espionage is a substantial threat in the Bay Area. Currently, officials think the real problem is getting local, private sector businesses and technology companies to act. While a large number of cases do not reach the prosecution stage, many more go unreported entirely. According to Larae Quy, a former FBI Counterintelligence Agent, “they would have an employee sell technology to, say, the Russians or the Chinese, and rather than let their stockholders and investors know about it, they just let it walk.  So, we caught the guy, we have enough information, we would like to take it to the next level, and they don’t want to push it because of the bad press that gets out.  It’s the most frustrating thing in the world.”

As time goes on, corporate espionage remains a way for countries around the world to attack the United States.  As the tech industry spreads, it will become vitally more important to ensure the companies and their secrets are protected.  Currently, Silicon Valley is the birthplace of most technology startups today.  It is crucially important that detecting and mitigating corporate espionage is at the forefront of priorities for companies and governments alike.

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