To his American friends and contacts, Stephen Su was an affable businessman and gregarious guy.
“People liked him,” Bob Anderson, the FBI’s former head of counterintelligence, told me. “They didn’t think he was an asshole and I know that sounds stupid, but people are people and that’s how it started.”
Stephen Su, who also went by his Chinese name Su Bin, lived in his native China but traveled frequently to the United States and Canada, to build a business in the aviation and aerospace sectors. His company, Lode-Tech, was a small player in a field of giants. However, from 2009 to 2014, Su steadily and deliberately built a network of close business contacts inside far bigger US and Canadian defense contractors who held some of most sensitive US military contracts.
“So, he cultivates you over time,” Anderson recalled.
The information Su was most interested in related to three of the most advanced US military aircraft ever built, the Lockheed Martin F-35 and F-22 stealth fighters and the Boeing C-17 Globemaster transport aircraft. Though they were the products of two of the Pentagon’s biggest military contractors, each drew on thousands of components sourced from dozens of smaller suppliers. That supply chain provided numerous ins for Su—as well as a convenient explanation for any partners who grew concerned about the kind of information he was looking for.
“Su would say, ‘I’m not asking you to give me the F-35, but what’s it matter if I get one system out of it that we could sell to a friend or a perspective client?'” said Anderson. “And then go from there, and it takes time.”
Unfettered access for three years
As it turns out, Su and his partners would have unfettered access inside Boeing’s network for three years before the intrusion was first discovered. During that time, they would claim to have stolen some 630,000 digital files — totaling a gargantuan 65 gigabytes of data — on the C-17 alone. They stole tens of thousands more files on the F-22 and F-35. It was an extraordinary trove of information on some of America’s most advanced and sensitive military projects.
Su’s team, while enormously successful, was just one small part of a massive army of Chinese hackers dedicated to stealing America’s most sensitive government and private sector secrets. Over the last two decades, China has built an enormous infrastructure charged with cyber espionage. The Office of the US Trade Representative estimates that the United States loses up to $600 billion per year in intellectual property. Since it deems China “the world’s principal IP infringer,” the USTR believes China may be responsible for bulk of those losses.
China’s theft of US trade and government secrets is not bad behavior by rogue Chinese individuals or organizations, it is government policy — and it is one of the issues at the root of the trade war raging between the US and China today. One senior US law enforcement official described China’s espionage apparatus to me as akin to a “tapeworm,” feeding off tens of thousands of US institutions and individuals, to siphon away America’s most treasured asset: its ingenuity.
Beijing’s goal is nothing short of surpassing the United States as the world’s most powerful and most technologically advanced superpower. Chinese leaders would prefer to do so peacefully, but if there is a war, they want to level the battlefield. (end of excerpt)
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