Germany is under attack from an increasing number of state-backed Chinese spying operations that are costing the German economy tens of billions of euros a year, a leading German counter-intelligence agent has said.
Walter Opfermann, an espionage protection expert in the office for counter-intelligence for the state of Baden-Wurttemberg, said that China was using an array of “polished methods” from old-fashioned spies to phone-tapping, and increasingly the Internet, to steal industrial secrets.
He said methods had become “extremely sophisticated,” to the extent that China, which employs a million intelligence agents, was now capable of “sabotaging whole chunks of infrastructure,” such as Germany’s power grid.
“This poses a danger not just for Germany but for critical infrastructure worldwide,” he said.
Russia, he said, was also “top of the list” of states using Internet spying techniques to garner vital German know-how that “helps save billions on their own economic research and development.”
He said while Russia only had “hundreds of thousands of agents,” it had “years more experience” than China.
Opfermann estimated that German companies were losing around 50 billion euros (US$71 billion) and 30,000 jobs to industrial espionage every year.
The areas most under attack include car manufacturing, renewable energies, chemistry, communication, optics, X-ray technology, machinery, materials research and armaments. Information being gathered was not just related to research and development but also management techniques and marketing strategies.
Opfermann said Internet espionage was the biggest growth field, citing the “thick fog of Trojan e-mail attacks” taking place against thousands of firms on a regular basis and the methods employed to cover up where the e-mails had come from.
But he said “old-fashioned” methods were also rife, such as phone-tapping, stealing laptops during business trips or Chinese companies who regularly sent spies to infiltrate companies.
“I cannot name names, but we’ve dealt with several cases of Chinese citizens on work experience in German companies, who stole highly sensitive information from them,” he said.
In one case, the police raided the house of a Chinese woman suspected of stealing company secrets from a German business where she was working, and discovered 170 CDs containing highly sensitive product details.
In a separate case, a highly qualified Chinese mechanical engineer employed by a company in the Lake Constance region was discovered to have passed on information for a machine it was developing to the company’s Chinese competitor, who constructed an exact copy.
“As is often the case, the man disappeared and went back to China. So often the attacker is way ahead of the game and it’s also hard to find out who they’ve been working for,” he said.
Two years ago, consultancy firm Corporate Trust estimated that around 20 percent of German companies — mainly small and middle-sized businesses — had been the victims of industrial espionage.