China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS) has escalated its use of advanced technology, including artificial intelligence (AI) and facial recognition, to intensify surveillance operations within Beijing’s embassy district. This development underscores the escalating Cold War-style rivalry between the MSS and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), each seeking to maintain the upper hand in intelligence gathering. This article delves into the MSS’s increasing technological prowess and its implications for global espionage.
AI-powered surveillance in Beijing’s embassy district
Once overshadowed by Chinese military intelligence units, the MSS has transformed into the nation’s preeminent spy agency, amalgamating foreign surveillance and domestic counterintelligence operations. Utilizing AI and facial recognition technology, the MSS now closely monitors foreign diplomats, military personnel, and intelligence operatives in the heart of Beijing’s embassy district. This cutting-edge system creates instant dossiers, monitoring the movements and interactions of individuals of interest. It enables the MSS to identify their networks and assess potential vulnerabilities, substantially enhancing their intelligence capabilities.
Rivalry with the CIA
The escalating technological arms race in espionage between the MSS and the CIA is evident. For China, exploiting existing technology and trade secrets has become a strategic shortcut actively encouraged by the government. The urgency and intensity of technological espionage have surged, setting the stage for an intelligence rivalry unlike any other. While China has a long history of attempting to steal advanced technologies and trade secrets from other nations, the CIA has shifted its focus towards gathering critical information regarding China’s advancements in AI and quantum computing.
CIA’s increased focus on China’s technological advances
David Cohen, the Deputy Director of the CIA, has acknowledged the agency’s heightened emphasis on collecting data related to China’s technological advancements. In the past, the CIA primarily focused on traditional intelligence targets, such as military capabilities. However, the current landscape demands an acute awareness of emerging technologies. As Cohen notes, the CIA now dedicates significant resources to monitoring China’s progress in semiconductors, AI algorithms, and biotech equipment, reflecting the evolving priorities of the intelligence community.
Chen Wenqing, the former head of the MSS, was promoted to China’s Politburo in October 2022, marking the first instance of a spymaster being elevated to such a high-level role in decades. His successor, Chen Yixin, a close aide to Chinese leader Xi Jinping, is determined to enhance the agency’s profile. Unlike intelligence agencies like the CIA or MI6, the MSS remains secretive, lacking a public-facing website or any public contact information. However, Chen has ventured into social media, creating official MSS accounts on platforms such as WeChat to assert China’s resilience in the face of international pressure.
Recruitment efforts and espionage cases
Apart from its focus on advanced technology, the MSS has been actively recruiting American citizens as spies, raising concerns within the U.S. intelligence community. While studying in Shanghai, Glenn Shriver, an American college student, was recruited and pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit espionage. His case highlights Beijing’s ambition to recruit young Americans without ethnic or family ties to China.
In another case, Kun Shan Chun, a naturalized U.S. citizen and an FBI employee with top-secret clearance, was sentenced to prison for acting as an agent of China. Chun provided the Chinese government with information about FBI surveillance methods and an FBI agent’s travel arrangements.
Last year, Yanjun Xu, a Chinese government intelligence officer, was extradited to the United States and sentenced to 20 years in prison for espionage and attempting to steal trade secrets. His case underscored the aggressive stance of the MSS in targeting American aviation companies and soliciting trade secrets.