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FBI says Chinese Communist Party poses counterintelligence threats in Utah

Posted at 8:26 PM, May 19, 2021

SALT LAKE CITY — The devices that connect us, all around the world, can also connect us to global threats.

David Fitzgibbons, a special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, covers national security breaches in Idaho, Montana and Utah.

“We believe that the greatest long term threat, in the United States, including the people of Utah, is the Chinese Communist Party,” said Fitzgibbons.

It’s almost guaranteed that if you’re an American adult, China has all of your personal information, according to Fitzgibbons.

For at least the past twenty years, the FBI reports counterintelligence threats and economic espionage from China.

“They have a motto of rob, replicate and replace,” said Fitzgibbons. “They want to steal our trade secrets when it comes to our economy. With our corporations, they want to replicate and eventually replace us in the global marketplace.”

The United States has a very welcome and open policy when dealing with the global community and that’s what Fitzgibbon’s said the Chinese Communist Party has taken advantage of.

“They’re not playing by the rules,” said Fitzgibbons.

There are approximately 5,000 counterintelligence cases opened by the FBI, nationwide and nearly half of them involve China.

In the last year, Fitzgibbons said they started a new task force dedicated to counterintelligence cases.

“We’re opening a China-related case every 10 hours around the country,” said Fitzgibbons.

Though he couldn’t comment about ongoing investigations in Utah, Fitzgibbons said the most recent case in Utah shows how the Chinese Communist Party is targeting certain groups depending on the information they want to steal.

“They target our security clearance holders,” said Fitzgibbons.

Ron Hansen from Syracuse was a former Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) officer caught sharing national defense information with the People’s Republic of China.

For nearly five years, Hansen received at least $800,000 from China for the information and technology he provided.

But it’s not just those with security clearances that are targeted.

Fitzgibbons said personal and business information, even research done by universities is also stolen.

Pete Ashdown, the founder of XMission, the first independent internet service provider in Utah, compared looking for breaches in security to finding a needle in a haystack.

“Finding it is a bit of an effort,” said Ashdown.

From the days of dial-up to google fiber, Ashdown said they have had a tricky relationship with China because their product is manufactured there.

Ashdown said they’ve seen news clips where China has embedded their software equipment into the products, something his company watches for.

“We don’t want the internet to become a place for outlaws,” said Ashdown.

One thing that makes all the difference, said Ashdown, is making a long password.

“Length is more important than what you put into the password,” said Ashdown. “It takes a hacker longer to hack a 20 character password than an eight-character password.”

Though China poses a threat, Ashdown mentioned that many attacks they watch on the internet stem from Russia.

“Russia is more of a Wild West on the internet than anyone else,” said Ashdown.

Most scammers will encrypt the hard drive and extort folks for money, but the Chinese approach is much more of a long-term approach.

“Something won’t go boom tomorrow like a terrorist attack,” said Fitzgibbons. “This is a long-term strategy.”

A strategy that also targets research done at universities.

Andrew Weyrich, the Vice President for research at the University of Utah said their school was named one of the leading colleges for research.

For the past five years or so, Weyrich said they have worked closely with the FBI and others to make sure their research is secure and not stolen — they haven’t had a breach.

“We do rely heavily on our investigators,” said Weyrich.

Every year, there is an annual test in their security systems and Weyrich said they expect all of their employees to report conflicts of interest globally and within their research fields.

“We do have other monitoring systems in place to try and catch these things if it does happen,” said Weyrich.