China Spied on Americans' Phones in Caribbean, Expert Finds

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December 15, 2020

China allegedly used telecommunications networks in the Caribbean to spy on Americans traveling abroad, according to a network security expert's findings reported by the Guardian.

Using a state-controlled tech giant, Chinese officials allegedly conducted surveillance attacks to track and intercept communications of mobile phone users without their knowledge. China has engaged in the practice since at least 2018, targeting 3G and 4G phone users, a former telecommunications security executive told the Guardian

The surveillance attacks largely occurred in countries such as Barbados and the Bahamas, affecting potentially tens of thousands of users, including U.S. citizens abroad.

The majority of the attacks on mobile phones were routed through the state-owned telecommunications company China Unicom, according to the security expert. Simultaneous surveillance intrusions were traced to Caribbean-based companies, though the expert suggested they may not have knowingly participated in malicious data theft but simply leased a network address to a Chinese entity carrying out surveillance.

In April, Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai declared China Unicom vulnerable to control from the CCP.

New reports about China’s ability to spy on Americans in the Caribbean only add to existing concerns about Beijing’s influence in the region, American Enterprise Institute research fellow Ryan Berg told the Free Beacon.

"The revelation that China has spied on U.S. citizens through Caribbean mobile phone networks ought to give every single government in the Western Hemisphere pause—especially those committed to allowing Chinese telecoms to build their 5G networks and other critical infrastructure," Berg said. "Today, it’s American citizens on vacation in the Caribbean, but tomorrow it could be Brazilians, Mexicans, and Colombians."

Beijing’s influence in the Caribbean does not end with surveillance of phone networks. China has developed strong ties with Cuba, allowing China to project greater influence at the United Nations. And Beijing has reportedly sought to reduce international recognition of Taiwan's sovereignty by winning support in the Caribbean.

The Trump administration has set competition with China in Latin America at the top of its agenda for the region. Through the Blue Dot Network and Clean Path initiatives, Washington has formed a growing coalition to build infrastructure and telecommunications hubs throughout the region free of Chinese influence. The innovative plans also minimize public expense, as they primarily receive investment and development from private companies.

"The Clean Network will facilitate private sector-led infrastructure development in Latin America as well as investment from the innovation sector," said Adam Boehler, CEO of the U.S. Development Finance Corporation. "A commitment to the Clean Network serves as a big catalyst for growth in the Americas."