Is China Spying Via Cargo Cranes

U.S. officials are growing concerned that giant Chinese-made cranes operating at American ports across the country, including at several used by the military, could give Beijing a possible spying tool hiding in plain sight.

Some national-security and Pentagon officials have compared ship-to-shore cranes made by the China-based manufacturer, ZPMC, to a Trojan horse. While comparably well-made and inexpensive, they contain sophisticated sensors that can register and track the provenance and destination of containers, prompting concerns that China could capture information about materiel being shipped in or out of the country to support U.S. military operations around the world.

The cranes could also provide remote access for someone looking to disrupt the flow of goods, said Bill Evanina, a former top U.S. counterintelligence official.

A ZPMC facility for manufacturing heavy equipment in Shanghai. PHOTO: SHEN CHUNCHEN/VCG/GETTY IMAGES

“Cranes can be the new Huawei,” Mr. Evanina said, referring to the Chinese telecom giant Huawei Technologies Co., whose equipment U.S. officials have effectively banned after warning that it could be used to spy on Americans. “It’s the perfect combination of legitimate business that can also masquerade as clandestine intelligence collection.” Huawei has said its products aren’t a national-security risk.

A representative of the Chinese Embassy in Washington called the U.S. concerns about the cranes a “paranoia-driven” attempt to obstruct trade and economic cooperation with China. “Playing the ‘China card’ and floating the ‘China threat’ theory is irresponsible and will harm the interests of the U.S. itself,” it said.

Representatives of ZPMC, whose full name is Shanghai Zhenhua Heavy Industries Co., didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The recent tension over high-altitude balloons as an alleged means of Chinese surveillance has cast a spotlight on the changing nature of espionage and how nations keep tabs on each other, beyond the more conventional intelligence-gathering tools of spies and satellites.

In recent years, U.S. national-security officials have pointed to a range of equipment manufactured in China that could facilitate either surveillance or disruptions in the U.S., including baggage-screening systems and electrical transformers, as well as broader concerns about China’s growing control of ports around the world through strategic investments. China makes almost all of the world’s new shipping containers and controls a shipping-data service.

In that context, the giant ship-to-shore cranes have drawn new attention. The $850 billion defense policy bill lawmakers passed in December requires the Transportation Department’s maritime administrator, in consultation with the defense secretary and others, to produce an unclassified study by the end of this year on whether foreign-manufactured cranes pose cybersecurity or national-security threats at American ports.

National-security officials haven’t detailed any instances of cranes being used to nefarious ends. In the case of the high-altitude balloon shot down in February, U.S. authorities said the vehicle was made by a manufacturer with a direct relationship with the Chinese military and carried antennas and sensors for collecting intelligence and communications. Western law-enforcement authorities have identified the threat posed by Chinese espionage, including the theft of technology, as a priority.

The US Department of Justice has revealed that American agents have been charged with spying for China after sharing activists’ private information, including the passport information of one man’s daughter.

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