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Feds Ask IT Execs To Throw Away Cellphones After Visiting China 382

Posted by Soulskill
from the guilty-of-aberrant-longitude dept.
sholto writes "US intelligence agencies are advising top US IT executives to weigh their laptops before and after visiting China as one of many precautions against corporate espionage. Symantec Chief Technology Officer Mark Bregman said he was also advised to buy a new cellphone for each visit and to throw it away after leaving. Bregman said he kept a separate MacBook Air for use in China, which he re-images on returning, but claimed he didn't subscribe to the strictest policies. 'Bregman said the US was also concerned about its companies employing Chinese coders, particularly in security.'"
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Feds Ask IT Execs To Throw Away Cellphones After Visiting China

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  • huh (Score:4, Funny)

    by JeanBaptiste (537955) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @09:49AM (#29439339)

    how much does data weigh? I'm sure the 1's are heavier than the 0's....

  • by jmpeax (936370) * on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @09:50AM (#29439359)

    Symantec Chief Technology Officer Mark Bregman [...] was advised to buy a new cellphone for each visit

    Yes, heaven forbid China learns the secret of bloated antivirus software that ignores state-sponsored keyloggers [wikipedia.org].

    • by mrdoogee (1179081) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @11:02AM (#29440387)
      What a coincidence! I advise people to buy new software after every Symantec install!
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by demachina (71715)

      I'm wondering if Symantec will be closing down their China Development Center [symantec.com] in Bejing since Symantec has been developing security software in China for a few years now. Don't know how you reconcile these draconian security concerns with having a major development center in said country... developing security software for use in the west.

      It is interesting how the Obama administration seems to be much less accommodating to the Chinese than the Bush administration was. The Bush administration bent over bac

  • Manufacture (Score:5, Funny)

    by fridaynightsmoke (1589903) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @09:50AM (#29439361) Homepage
    I'm sure glad that the laptops and cellphones in question weren't MADE in China in the first place...
    Oh, wait..
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by bheekling (976077)
      Do you think it would go undetected for long if thousands of cellphones and laptops made in China, Korea or wherever had a hardware sneak-chip installed?

      Do you think it would be worth the effort to seed just a few of those thousands for some possible marginal gain? (Also keep in mind that specialized changes wreak havoc on an assembly line's schedule)

      Much easier to just target the fish directly.
      • Re:Manufacture (Score:5, Interesting)

        by WinterSolstice (223271) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @11:00AM (#29440371)

        In a word? YES.
        It would require actual competence to detect a piece of hardware that essentially did nothing until activated and simply sat on a motherboard. Do you know if there are extremely detailed inspections done on every piece of circuitry brought into country X from country Y? I know for a fact that in a certain very large defense company I worked for lots of "surprises" were found on a regular basis. Typically things like parts that were different from the specs, insects, and on occasion completely incorrect assemblies.

        The funny part was these nearly all made it past QA and into the finished products, only to be discovered when something failed.

        So based on that, I'd say that *if* someone were choosing to do something like this, it would be fairly easy to sneak it past the level of moron that would typically be doing these inspections.

        Tinfoil hats aside - the real trick is getting the data back off again. It's trivial to convince a cell phone (for example) to record conversations while appearing off. The trick is to get to the data without anyone noticing, while you're in a foreign (possibly hostile) nation. I'd think someone would notice if a cell phone was constantly 'phoning home'.

        Doing this with a laptop would also be trivial, but I would hope that the firewall filter would catch outbound connections to unusual sites?

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Tony Hoyle (11698)

          Screw the phone.. the cell towers are all made by the chinese anyway (Round here Huewei make most of them).

          And the DSL connections, and the routers connecting them to the internet..

    • by ciroknight (601098)
      It's pretty hard to bug something at manufacturing time, since you usually don't have a clue as to who it's being shipped to. It can be done, but odds are you'll end up bugging a lot of 19 year old teenage girls going off to college instead of corporate execs.
      • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @10:21AM (#29439847)

        ...odds are you'll end up bugging a lot of 19 year old teenage girls going off to college instead of corporate execs.

        Either way, you win.

  • Worthless (Score:5, Interesting)

    by afidel (530433) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @09:51AM (#29439379)
    The same outsources plants that produce the goods just do a second run at night to produce grey market versions. Microsoft found this out after finding perfect counterfeit copies of their software that were only distinguished by having serial numbers that were never activated in their database, the plants that were producing packaging and holograms for their official packing were making exact duplicates for the counterfeiters.
    • The article is referring to planting physical keylogging or other devices on specific machines. As in breaking into your hotel room, opening up your laptop, and installing something that will send information back. This is why you should weigh before and after. TFA metions 3-letter agencies telling him to do this, so maybe they know something you don't.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by TheRaven64 (641858)
        It's not all that surprising. British companies used to be advised not to talk business on the plane to France, because the French intelligence agencies were placing bugs in the headrests and giving sensitive information to French companies.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          It's not all that surprising. British companies used to be advised not to talk business on the plane to France, because the French intelligence agencies were placing bugs in the headrests and giving sensitive information to French companies.

          And I'm quite sure that MI5 (or whoever) did/do spy on non-British companies to give British ones an advantage (or at least I hope so :P)
          This is one of those examples of "war morality"; whereby "us doing X to them" is fine, but "them doing X to us" is completly unacceptable and a sign of cowardice and various other undesireable traits.

    • by Bert64 (520050)

      Same thing happens with dvds, clothes, and all manner of other things... And yet they still try to claim counterfeit copies are inferior?

  • by pmontra (738736) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @09:51AM (#29439383) Homepage
    How about using phones and notebooks manufactured in China? Is that ok or do we have to assume they are bugged-at-factory? Are the US starting to move their production lines back to home?
  • Related story (Score:2, Interesting)

    by BadAnalogyGuy (945258)

    It's almost impossible to tell whether additional software has been installed unless you either 1) diff your HDD (hard and time consuming) or 2) weigh the laptop and see if any data has been added. The government is, for once, correct and providing helpful information.

    More on this topic at this old Slashdot story [slashdot.org].

  • by Ukab the Great (87152) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @09:53AM (#29439413)

    The real story in the article should be "CTO of world's largest Windows security software company uses a mac."

  • Its far too easy for the Communist government to tap into those, a Thuraya or Iridium satellite phone should be a bit harder but if I went to China I'd still be using a one-time pad to send messages home.
  • by NoYob (1630681) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @09:57AM (#29439479)
    I'm just curious. Isn't it a bit of a coincidence that this warning comes out when there is a growing trade dispute [wsj.com] with China happening now? We have been using China as our factory an major offshoring partner for quite a few years and now there are warnings.
  • by bezenek (958723) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @10:02AM (#29439557) Journal
    (The following discussion is based on real experiences and is not meant to profile people, but to state facts.)

    This is really ridiculous. If the Chinese want to steal our technology, all they have to do is to contact several of the thousands of Chinese nationals who are working in the US until they find someone who needs money or other help for their family back in China.

    One company I worked for had a Chinese national who was not allowed to work on part of a project because it was protected technology. The same person could have dropped the entire project onto their iPod and carried it out the door, but did not.

    The ethics problem is represented by an experience I had while at an American research university. A Chinese faculty member met with the Chinese students in order to tell them in America, cheating and other ethical breaches are not considered a good way to get ahead. This suggested certain cultural differences which should not be used to discriminate, but need to be recognized because of the risks involved.

    -Todd
    • by Chrisq (894406) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @10:15AM (#29439763)

      ... all they have to do is to contact several of the thousands of Chinese nationals ...

      History shows that approaching US Nationals with enough money [wikipedia.org] can also have the desired affect.

    • by xplenumx (703804) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @10:41AM (#29440095)

      The ethics problem is represented by an experience I had while at an American research university. A Chinese faculty member met with the Chinese students in order to tell them in America, cheating and other ethical breaches are not considered a good way to get ahead. This suggested certain cultural differences which should not be used to discriminate, but need to be recognized because of the risks involved.

      While I certaily wasn't at that talk (and I suspect that neither were you), I'm willing to bet that you don't completely understand what the talk was about. I'm on the faculty of a top tier reserch insitution conducting immunological research - I've had several Chinese graduate students, have sat on the international admissions committee, and have given the talk that you describe to our new Chinese students. The problem isn't one of ethics, but one of culture. The Chinese don't regard plagiarism the same way we do - in fact, the educational system encourages it in a way as it is an honor, of sorts, to 'plagiarize' your mentor. Additionally, a lot of these students don't have confidence in their english, so whey they write they occassionally take an idea from another article and copy it verbatim thinking "that's exactly what I was thinking, and I don't have to worry about incorrect english" - in most cases, there is not an intention of deceit. The Chinese certainly have their issues (admitting mistakes and nationalism), but I wouldn't call them unethical.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by geminidomino (614729) *

      A Chinese faculty member met with the Chinese students in order to tell them in America, cheating and other ethical breaches are not considered a good way to get ahead.

      They are, however, considered invaluable in *staying* ahead once you get there.

  • by atlmatt36 (1638631) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @10:03AM (#29439581)
    For all the barking of the agencies, it's obvious they haven't encountered the treatment I and my colleagues have encountered re-entering the US from abroad only to have laptops have the data examined, and that data be copied for "further analysis" or even the laptop confiscated for an undetermined amount of time. It's just a matter of time before other countries make the same advertisment about travel to the US.... What's the old saying (Kettle calling the Pot black).
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by D Ninja (825055)

      What's the old saying (Kettle calling the Pot black)

      Actually, Pot started it. He called Kettle "black" first. It devolved into a war shortly thereafter when the Broiling Pan took sides and the Colander started screaming for legal recourse. Fortunately, Cheese Grater and Can Opener continued to get along. Then, of course, there was the scandal where Dish ran away with Spoon, but that's another story...

  • by Coraon (1080675) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @10:08AM (#29439657)
    The US border guards are just going to swipe the laptop and smart phones at customs anyway.
  • by Logical Zebra (1423045) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @10:12AM (#29439727)

    Remember the Cold War, when the Soviets were 10-foot-tall super soldiers who could read your mind and fart atomic infernos out of their asses? Everything was thought to be a commie conspiracy.
    Is this happening again, but now we are instead fearing the Chinese?

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      The Soviets:
      1) never matched the US economically, achieving military parity or superiority only in ground forces and nuclear delivery systems
      2) never had a true deep water navy, and no full year ocean access
      3) their population never exceeded the US, and they needed troops to keep Poland, Hungary, East Germany in check

      The Chinese:
      1) are projected to exceed the US economically in the next 10-15 years
      2) have 2000+ miles of access to the Pacific ocean
      3) have a raw population exceeding 3 times the US, its urban

  • Good for China (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Bert64 (520050) <bert@noSPam.slashdot.firenzee.com> on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @10:13AM (#29439741) Homepage

    If everyone who visits China buys a new cellphone and laptop for the trip...
    Where were those cellphones and laptops likely manufactured? China...
    China stands to make quite a profit from people doing this.

  • and yet we have everything built in China for sale in the US (iPhones, Lenovo, etc).
  • by BenEnglishAtHome (449670) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @10:17AM (#29439793)

    Maybe I'm taking this a little personally because I'm an IT guy. I dunno. But I do know I'd rather not work in IT for a large, tech-based company where the CTO is quoted publicly as saying: "I don't let my IT department near my laptop".

    Anybody else have a WTF moment when they saw that? Or is it only me?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @10:19AM (#29439821)

    Since in the US they'll take your phone and laptop, MP3 player and any other good stuff and demand to see your company documents if they think there's something nice in there.

    PS the US has used Echelon to get Boeing a european contract by finding out the figure they had to bit under to get the contract.

    This didn't require a cell phone either, so throwing away your cellphone isn't necessary there either.

    So much nicer being spied on by the US government. You don't have to buy new kit all the time, just accept the espionage.

  • by ironicsky (569792) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @10:19AM (#29439823) Journal
    As a non-American citizen I feel the reverse holds true. When I enter the USA from Canada I should bring a seperate bare-bones, no thrills cell phone and an empty laptop. Because if the TSA decides that they want to snoop through my electronics there is no telling what information they are pulling out, government created spyware being installed, or some sort of magical chip that transmits everything I am doing back to them.

    See, Conspiracy theories work both ways... No more fear mongering, okay? Lets play nice kids.
    • by dissy (172727) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @12:48PM (#29442075)

      As a non-American citizen I feel the reverse holds true. When I enter the USA from Canada I should bring a seperate bare-bones, no thrills cell phone and an empty laptop. Because if the TSA decides that they want to snoop through my electronics there is no telling what information they are pulling out, government created spyware being installed, or some sort of magical chip that transmits everything I am doing back to them.

      See, Conspiracy theories work both ways...

      I know you said all that in jest, but you are more right than you suspect. And the situation with DHS and the TSA is very close to that (Other than installing hardware.. though the law does explicitly allow them to, even if they don't do it now)

      That isn't a conspiracy or paranoia, its a well proven fact.

  • by noidentity (188756) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @10:25AM (#29439893)

    US intelligence agencies are advising top US IT executives to weigh their laptops before and after visiting China as one of many precautions against corporate espionage.

    This is very good advice, as it would instantly catch the loss of weight if any data was stolen from the laptop. You hear of data theft all the time, and all it takes is something low-tech like a scale to detect it.

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