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ASIO boss warns of Chinese intellectual property theft and infiltration

Mike Burgess has declared the current rate of Chinese industrial espionage as “unprecedented and unacceptable”.

user icon David Hollingworth
Wed, 18 Oct 2023
ASIO boss warns of Chinese intellectual property theft and infiltration
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“China has developed a ruthless business model aimed at seizing commercial advantage,” Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) chief Mike Burgess said at the first public meeting of Five Eyes leaders in the 77-year history of the organisation – focused on Chinese spying and hacking – in Silicon Valley in the US.

Burgess called out China specifically over intellectual property theft, saying that innovation is a “global endeavour” that no nation can claim leadership over. In particular, he noted Australia’s role as a “nation of innovation”.

“It’s no surprise nations want to steal Australian innovation, from the electric drill to Wi-Fi to penicillin to Google Maps, the black box recorder to the refrigerator,” Burgess said. “Australia is a nation of innovation.”


Burgess earlier admitted that while all nations spy, Chinese activity is beyond the pale – and growing still.

“I recognise that all nations spy,” Burgess said during a panel hosted by ex-US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, “all nations seek secrets, and all nations seek strategic advantage. But the behaviour we’re talking about here goes beyond traditional espionage – and the threat is that we have the Chinese government engaged in the most sustained, scaled, and sophisticated theft of intellectual property – and acquisition of expertise – that is unprecedented in human history.”

FBI director Christopher Wray, also speaking at the event alongside his Australian, New Zealand, British, and Canadian counterparts, said that his agency is opening a new investigation into property theft every 12 hours, with China the main culprit.

At a later press conference, Wray added the Chinese threat has gotten “more dangerous and more insidious in recent years”.

“China has long targeted businesses with a web of techniques all at once: cyber intrusions, human intelligence operations, seemingly innocuous corporate investments and transactions … Every strand of that web has become more brazen and more dangerous,” Wray said.

According to Wray, Chinese hacking operations are now “greater than every other nation combined”.

“Now, we see Beijing closing the malicious circle by bringing innovation and data they’ve stolen to bear, to steal even more,” Wray added.

At the same press conference, Burgess detailed a particular incident of infiltration aimed at an Australian organisation.

“Just last month, ASIO detected and disrupted a plot to infiltrate a prestigious Australian institution,” Burgess said. “The plot involved a visiting professor, a genuine academic who had also been recruited by Chinese intelligence.”

“Their spymaster gave them money and a shopping list of intelligence requirements and sent them to Australia. The academic even set his Australian PhD students’ research assignments in line with his intelligence requirements.

“I took a personal interest in this case,” Burgess said. “As an engineer, I was flattered, somewhat, that one of the topics researched was me – but if they were looking for the next Mark Zuckerberg, they picked the wrong guy.”

“Working with the research institution, ASIO intervened and removed that academic from the country before that harm could be done. This sort of thing is happening every day in Australia,” Burgess added before saying other Five Eyes nations faced similar challenges.

David Hollingworth

David Hollingworth

David Hollingworth has been writing about technology for over 20 years, and has worked for a range of print and online titles in his career. He is enjoying getting to grips with cyber security, especially when it lets him talk about Lego.

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