ISS yearbook: Threat posed by Chinese intelligence a daily reality

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Chinese flag.

The threat posed by Chinese intelligence to Estonia as a EU and NATO member is a daily reality, illustrated by two criminal cases, one of which has already been resolved in court while a judgement is soon to be delivered in the second case, the Internal Security Service (ISS) stated in its latest yearbook.

The COVID-19 outbreak in China may have affected that country's intelligence activities more than Russia's, according to the ISS. Restrictions on movement and strict codes of conduct for civil servants, both at home and in missions around the world, severely hampered the activities of Chinese intelligence officers.

"At the same time, the reported arrest of Chinese intelligence agents in Poland and Germany, for example, as well as numerous cases in the United States, confirm that Beijing's intelligence activities are not expected to subside in the near future. As a member of the EU and NATO, the threat posed by Chinese intelligence to Estonia is also a daily reality. We see this as a growing threat," the annual review reads.

Intelligence activity is part of China's quest to become a world leader, including in economic and technological terms. As an example of its high ambitions, in the current five-year plan China has set itself the goal of achieving independence from Western technology by 2025, the ISS states.

"Step by step, Beijing is seeking to assert itself in Europe in the fields of politics, the economy and technology procurement. This must also be taken into account by Estonia, both in its cooperation with the People's Republic of China and in attracting Chinese capital investment. Since 2017, the Chinese government has obliged all its citizens, companies and organizations to cooperate fully with the country's intelligence agencies if required, and to keep this cooperation secret. Thus, if an Estonian company plans to look for cooperation partners in China, the interests of the Chinese state are included in the package," the ISS said.

Following last year's detention, a criminal case in ISS proceedings where the accused acted in the interests of the Chinese state reached court for the first time in early 2021.

Through a mediator, a long-term employee of Tallinn University of Technology, had established a relationship with the Intelligence Bureau of the Joint Staff Department of the Central Military Commission of the People's Republic of China. Although Chinese military intelligence officers originally appeared to be employees of a Chinese think-tank, their true face and involvement in intelligence became apparent quite quickly. The man met Chinese military intelligence representatives in various Asian countries. 

The researcher's professional work was related to the defense field, which is why he had also been granted access to state secrets. He was ready to talk to Chinese military intelligence about his research, but when detained he had not been able to disclose any state secrets. In return for useful information, the researcher received cash and paid foreign trips to Asia, accommodation in expensive hotels and banquets in Michelin-starred restaurants, among other things.

The ISS said that the long-term goal of Chinese intelligence was to gain access to secret information, but the security police managed to prevent the leak of state secrets by taking timely action. Regarding the case, there is another person under custody charged with the same activities. Her case is pending at Harju County Court.

"This criminal case confirms that, as has been said in our previous yearbooks, intelligence services of hostile countries can target people of very different backgrounds, not just civil servants. The information that intelligence services seek is not necessarily state secrets. This case should raise vigilance levels among all researchers involved in excessively remunerated 'research collaboration' with think-tanks in China and elsewhere. Well-paid advisory services for institutions of uncertain background outside the EU and NATO are also a danger sign," the annual review reads.

Estonia's security information of interest to third countries as well

In Estonia, it is customary to look only at Russia when talking about threats, but Estonia's security information is also of interest to other countries, the yearbook noted.

"Several countries now have their own cyber threat intelligence capabilities and specific advanced persistent threats (APTs). Estonia might not be a constant intelligence target for third countries, but our growing international relations and position may lead to such attacks," the annual review reads.

Barely a month after Estonia became a member of the UN Security Council at the beginning of 2020, phishing emails were used for cyber attacks against its representatives working at the UN.

"Behind this attack was the cyber intelligence unit of North Korea, which is known to target the Security Council. In 2020, attacks against Estonian universities continued to be made by the cyber intelligence group Silent Librarian, which targets universities and has links with Iran," the ISS said.

Last year, Estonian state networks were scanned by China, according to the ISS. A database of a data processing company, Zhenhua Data, which was leaked in mid-2020, containing a considerable number of names of people involved in Estonian society, politics, government and other important fields, and their next of kin, also gives an indication of Beijing's interest in and awareness of Estonia.

"Given that only an estimated 10 percent of the actual database had leaked - and almost 440 Estonian residents and their relatives were mentioned in that batch - we can only guess how many names were involved in total," it is said in the annual review.

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Editor: Kristjan Kallaste

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