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China, Cybertheft, and the Ethics of Espionage

All nations spy, but espionage crosses a moral line when it costs normal civilians their jobs.

Earlier this year, the CEO of TikTok, Shou Zi Chew, testified before U.S. Congress as to whether TikTok is being used to spy on or gather information from U.S. citizens (e.g., scouring the periphery of videos or installing tracking apps or malware) or to spread misleading propaganda to skew public opinion. Thus far, there is no definitive evidence that TikTok is being used in this way, but the concern is that it can potentially be used in this way because it is a Chinese company that is inextricably tied to the Chinese government.

Chinese law means that all companies, in a sense, work for the Chinese government, meaning their data belongs to Beijing. When Alibaba’s Alipay was able to offer loans based on its customer spending habits, the Chinese state bank took over the company. When Didi Global, China’s largest ride-sharing company, was able to predict when a big decision was going to occur based on ride-share patterns, the Chinese government took it over. If the Chinese government wanted U.S. user metadata from TikTok, ByteDance is required to comply.

China takes a “whole of society” approach to intelligence, in which all of society works for China’s intelligence arm, the Ministry of State Security (MSS). The MSS is not accountable to the rule of law, independent political bodies, or the public, as is the case in Western countries. This whole of society approach is just one of the ways that China’s intelligence agencies go beyond the “norms of espionage.”

As we saw in a previous article, the Chinese government also enables its businesses, often on behalf of the state or the military, to lie, cheat, and steal intellectual property from other businesses to favor its own global ambitions, which include undermining the U.S. and its allies’ ability to innovate and compete on the global stage. Furthermore, hackers working on behalf of the state have ended up sabotaging some small businesses by stealing IP and then outbidding and outcompeting them. All the sectors affected overlap with those outlined in the Chinese Communist Party’ Made in China 2025 initiative.

The intelligence leaders for the Five-Eyes alliance say that this goes beyond the norms of espionage, which brings up the question: what are the ethics of spying?

Ethics and Espionage

According to political theorists, nations are in a kind of “state of nature” relationship where each nation acts according to its own interests. It is in the interest of nations to cooperate on some matters, particularly among nations that have shared values. Where nation-states pose a threat to other nation-states, it is part of the contract between a governing body and its people to protect them from outside threats. Most nations engage in espionage to understand the intentions and capabilities of foreign adversaries.

For example, many Western intelligence groups want to understand China, and specifically Xi Jinping’s, intentions in regard to Taiwan. China likewise wants to know how its military stacks up against the U.S. military and whether other countries’ militaries would ally with the U.S. if a conflict occurred over Taiwan. These are legitimate questions that a nation would want to try and answer through spying or covert means. In this sense, spying can be used to reduce the number of civilian casualties, protect the borders, and de-escalate potential threats.

Cecil Fabre’s book Spying Through a Glass Darkly (Oxford, 2022), addresses the ethics of espionage from a similar perspective of Just War theory. From this perspective, a nation may have a moral obligation to conduct espionage to ensure that conflict is warranted. Quoting from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, Fabre says,

“War is so costly to the sovereign’s soldiers and subjects, particularly his poorest subjects, that the sovereign is under an obligation to try and shorten it by acquiring knowledge of the enemy’s intentions and dispositions.”

Additionally, with the abilities of targeted and drone attacks, espionage ensures that the right target is attacked, and no more. It is a failure of intelligence when the wrong target is attacked. To get this information, however, often requires spies on the ground, not just satellite imagery.

Finally, some nations engage in espionage to acquire information on human rights abuses, such as those seen in Xinjiang, China. The Chinese government has attempted to keep human rights abuses of Tibetan residents, as well as Uyghurs in Xinjiang away from global scrutiny. In 2019 Japan reportedly provided the Five-Eyes network with key intelligence on the Chinese government’s treatment of Uyghurs. This led to harsher accusations and eventually sanctions by allies to pressure the Chinese government to release detainees.

Most nations want to understand the “intentions and capabilities of foreign adversaries” says Calder Walton, but China takes it a step further. He says in an essay for Foreign Policy that China’s intelligence aims to “steal as many scientific and technical secrets from Western powers, principally the United States, as possible to advance China’s position as a superpower—challenging and overtaking the United States on the world stage.”

Let’s look at a couple of ways that China serves as an example of violating the norms of espionage.

Ubiquitous Technological Surveillance and Forced Recruitment

One difference between the MSS and Western spying agencies is the level of “Ubiquitous Technological Surveillance”. This is everything from biometric identification technologies, like facial recognition or gait recognition, to the digital footprint people leave from their searches, apps, and credit card purchases. This is where China has the advantage to the U.S. China is the world leader in facial recognition technology, and with almost every part of the country under video surveillance thanks to Xi Jinping’s “Sharp Eyes” project, no one can acquire information on China, while China can acquire information on other countries.

Because the MSS is not accountable to the rule of law or standards that restrict surveillance, China can cover more ground and suss out potential agents where other countries cannot. So, in China, the government has decided where the balance between civil liberties and security lies, and it heavily favors security. Citizens who would rather liberties over security have no recourse. Additionally, because of threats and fear tactics, even Chinese nationals living abroad, who have dual citizenship or whose families live in China, are threatened if they do not cooperate with Chinese intelligence. In this way, everyone works for the Chinese government, whether they want to or not.

According to FBI director Christopher Wray, the Chinese government has intimidated, threatened, and detained Chinese nationals who criticized the Chinese government, even if they live in a country that allows freedom of speech. China’s Operation Fox Hunt was uncovered as the way the Chinese Communist Party reaches past its own borders to threaten and recruit nationals into spying or stealing for the government.

“Basically, what you have with China is the autocracy and oppressive regime of East Germany combined with the cutting-edge technology of Silicon Valley,” says Wray.

All nations spy, but espionage crosses a moral line when it costs normal civilians their jobs, stifles innovation through theft and other means, and infringes on the rights and liberties espoused by another country.

Heather Zeiger

Heather Zeiger is a freelance science writer in Dallas, TX. She has advanced degrees in chemistry and bioethics and writes on the intersection of science, technology, and society. She also serves as a research analyst with The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity. Heather writes for bioethics.com, Salvo Magazine, and her work has appeared in RelevantMercatorNet, Quartz, and The New Atlantis.

China, Cybertheft, and the Ethics of Espionage