By about 2010, two former CIA officials recalled, the Chinese security services had instituted a sophisticated travel intelligence program, developing databases that tracked flights and passenger lists for espionage purposes. “We looked at it very carefully,” said the former senior CIA official. China’s spies “were actively using that for counterintelligence and offensive intelligence. The capability was there and was being utilized.” China had also stepped up its hacking efforts targeting biometric and passenger data from transit hubs…
To be sure, China had stolen plenty of data before discovering how deeply infiltrated it was by U.S. intelligence agencies. However, the shake-up between 2010 and 2012 gave Beijing an impetus not only to go after bigger, riskier targets, but also to put together the infrastructure needed to process the purloined information. It was around this time, said a former senior NSA official, that Chinese intelligence agencies transitioned from merely being able to steal large datasets en masse to actually rapidly sifting through information from within them for use….
For U.S. intelligence personnel, these new capabilities made China’s successful hack of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) that much more chilling. During the OPM breach, Chinese hackers stole detailed, often highly sensitive personnel data from 21.5 million current and former U.S. officials, their spouses, and job applicants, including health, residency, employment, fingerprint, and financial data. In some cases, details from background investigations tied to the granting of security clearances—investigations that can delve deeply into individuals’ mental health records, their sexual histories and proclivities, and whether a person’s relatives abroad may be subject to government blackmail—were stolen as well….
When paired with travel details and other purloined data, information from the OPM breach likely provided Chinese intelligence potent clues about unusual behavior patterns, biographical information, or career milestones that marked individuals as likely U.S. spies, officials say. Now, these officials feared, China could search for when suspected U.S. spies were in certain locations—and potentially also meeting secretly with their Chinese sources. China “collects bulk personal data to help it track dissidents or other perceived enemies of China around the world,” Evanina, the top U.S. counterintelligence official, said.
But after the OPM breach, anomalies began to multiply. In 2012, senior U.S. spy hunters began to puzzle over some “head-scratchers”: In a few cases, spouses of U.S. officials whose sensitive work should have been difficult to discern were being approached by Chinese and Russian intelligence operatives abroad, according to the former counterintelligence executive. In one case, Chinese operatives tried to harass and entrap a U.S. official’s wife while she accompanied her children on a school field trip to China. “The MO is that, usually at the end of the trip, the lightbulb goes on [and the foreign intelligence service identifies potential persons of interest]. But these were from day one, from the airport onward,” the former official said.
Worries about what the Chinese now knew precipitated an intelligence community-wide damage assessment surrounding the OPM and other hacks, recalled Douglas Wise, a former senior CIA official who served deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency from 2014 to 2016. Some worried that China might have purposefully secretly altered data in individuals’ OPM files to later use as leverage in recruitment attempts. Officials also believed that the Chinese might sift through the OPM data to try and craft the most ideal profiles for Chinese intelligence assets seeking to infiltrate the U.S. government—since they now had granular knowledge of what the U.S. government looked for, and what it didn’t, while considering applicants for sensitive positions. U.S. intelligence agencies altered their screening procedures to anticipate new, more finely tuned Chinese attempts at human spying, Wise said.