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China’s spy ministry raises alert over foreign NGO theft of ‘environmental data’

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China’s top spy agency sounded an alarm on Monday about foreign NGOs and foundations, saying two organisations had stolen “environmental data” from China under the guise of research and environmental protection.

The allegations were outlined in an article posted on the Ministry of State Security’s public WeChat account, and referred to two cases of theft of “geographical, meteorological, biological and other sensitive data from China’s important nature reserves, posing risks and hazards to national security”.

In the first case, a professor from an unnamed country “illegally collected” data from an unspecified national wetland reserve and forest area, it said.

The ministry said the professor confessed to collecting and stealing data “under the cover of academic cooperation”.

The ministry said the academic was punished, but did not say what the penalties were.

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China executes scientist for spying in 2016, among 10 ‘shocking’ cases revealed in documentary

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In another case, a “foreign university” cooperated with the scientific management arm of a national nature reserve in southwest China with the support of a foreign non-governmental organisation (NGO).

The foreigners “instructed and coerced” the local staff to “illegally steal various kinds of sensitive data from the nature reserve” with various inducements, including sex, it said.

The NGO, which had a “complex background”, was helping “a certain Western country” to “steal core, sensitive data” under the cover of project cooperation, the ministry said.

The data was obtained through the “installation of meteorological stations, infrared camera equipment, GPS mapping and the theft of classified computer data”.

It said these acts “caused serious damage to our ecological security”.

The article also warned of the risk of environmental data leaks from Chinese companies and government agencies, saying some information management systems had back doors that “have become targets for hostile forces abroad to steal our sensitive classified data”.

The ministry urged the public to be alert to environmental espionage and to report possible instances to the authorities.

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Beijing followed up in July last year with revisions to the anti-espionage law that expanded both the definition of espionage and the investigative powers of state security agencies.

The ministry’s public warning is the last in a string of posts it has made in the past year.

As the otherwise mysterious agency has become increasingly active on social media, it has warned of the threat posed by foreign spies and urged the public to share information about suspicious activity.

The ministry is also covering a broader range of threats.

State Security Minister Chen Yixin said last month the ministry would protect “traditional” security areas such as political, economic and military security, as well as “non-traditional” areas, including biosecurity, data security and artificial intelligence.

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