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What China’s spy balloon tells us about the state of international espionage
Feb 14, 2023

What China’s spy balloon tells us about the state of international espionage

The balloon has put a spotlight on surveillance tech. The University of Michigan’s Javed Ali says it's also revealed gaps in U.S. security.

It’s been a little over a week since the U.S. military shot down a Chinese surveillance balloon over the coast of South Carolina. Since then, the United States has downed at least an additional three unidentified crafts in North American airspace.

The balloon saga has put a spotlight on foreign espionage operations, but Javed Ali said the practice is nothing new.

Ali is a former senior national security and intelligence official, as well as an associate professor of practice at the University of Michigan.

He spoked to Marketplace’s Kimberly Adams about what we can glean from this string of incidents about the technology and practices used in modern international espionage. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Javed Ali: Countries engage in espionage against each other all the time. That in and of itself is not the issue at play here. We spy on China and, likewise, they spy on us. So it’s not necessarily the fact that both countries spy on each other. It’s the particular method that was used. I don’t know if, in my time in government, that we saw intelligence operations launched so brazenly by a foreign country over the domestic United States. That, to me, was a unique feature of the balloon incident. And now, we’ve got three other objects, which may or may not be balloons, on top of the first Chinese balloon. Of course, we don’t currently know the country of origin for the other three objects.

Kimberly Adams: Aside from balloons, what other types of technology are foreign governments using to keep tabs on U.S. activities?

Ali: With China being such a large and sophisticated country with a powerful military, one can imagine that they have a whole range of capabilities at their disposal to try to engage in intelligence operations against the United States. How successful they are is up to Beijing, but the spectrum is very broad and vast from a technology perspective. That’s what makes them so daunting from the U.S. perspective. This is a country that has a lot of capability behind it. Just the surveillance balloon, even on its own, shows that this is just one of probably several things they can do to further that intelligence mission against the United States.

Adams: What do you think this moment means for U.S. national security and the systems we develop in the future to protect the country from espionage efforts of other nations?

Ali: I think it shows that we had a bit of a gap from an intelligence perspective and understanding what our upper-atmospheric picture looks like. Going forward, we need to do a lot of work to close that gap. This may explain why, over the past few days, we not only detected these additional objects, but shot them down. Right now, we don’t know whether they’re intelligence collection platforms in the way that the first Chinese balloon was. But it seems like very recently, something has changed in our ability to understand what that picture looks like that I just described. I don’t yet know if it’s a moment like we had after 9/11, where the intelligence enterprise writ large changed dramatically over the course of a few years. Because of the enormity and the tragedy of 9/11, I don’t think what these recent events have taught us so far will drive that level of strategic change, but there will have to be other changes along the way to better understand what’s happening over the United States, including the upper atmosphere, because these aren’t ground-based systems. I do think it’s interesting to draw some parallels to the type of reform and change after 9/11 versus potentially what could come from these most recent events.

Adams: We know that this aerial data, whether from satellites, balloons or other objects, can be a big part of international espionage. But what about the digital data that comes from intelligence gathering? Where does cyber-espionage fit into the current raft of national security concerns?

Ali: China has been very skillful at engaging in what experts would consider economic espionage against the United States. Economic espionage mostly focuses on trying to get trade secrets or intellectual property or even actual designs of systems or equipment that could benefit their military or big parts of their economy. They’ll then reverse engineer those things and produce them domestically. One thing I think it’s notable is China has been able to bridge some pretty significant gaps in terms of the development of technology for its military by these cyber-enabled espionage operations. That’s why China’s military looks so different now than it did even in the 1990s of the early 2000s.

As you’ve probably noticed, the first Chinese spy balloon generated a lot of commotion, inspired costumes at the 2023 State of the Union and even a Super Bowl commercial.

It’s also led to an accusation from China. CNN reports China claims the United States has illegally flown spy balloons over its territory at least 10 times since January 2022. The White House denies this accusation.

And according to The New York Times, the Chinese balloon may have sparked so much concern among lawmakers on Capitol Hill in part because the incident occurred on the heels of a classified report to Congress. According to the Times’ sources, that classified report outlined previous incidents in which foreign adversaries used advanced aerial technology to spy on the U.S.

In the wake of that report to Congress and this month’s balloon discovery, a review of some old data showed that at least three spy balloons entered U.S. during former President Donald Trump’s time in office. At least one balloon made an unnoticed visit during the Joe Biden administration, prior to the one spotted earlier this month.

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The team

Daisy Palacios Senior Producer
Daniel Shin Producer
Jesús Alvarado Associate Producer