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NEW DELHI: The high-altitude Chinese balloon that crossed over the US last week is just part of a years-long surveillance program with Beijing deploying such craft around the globe, the US said.
There has been a renewed scrutiny on Beijing’s spy operations since the US shot down the Chinese balloon last weekend.
The US has alleged the high-altitude device — which crossed directly over at least one sensitive US military site — was intended for espionage.
China has angrily denied the claims, arguing it was a weather observation craft that blew off course.
But while the much-hyped Chinese vehicle for espionage seemed novel, the concept was anything but.
According to US officials and reports, China has been running covert spying operations across continents for many years.
In fact, a second Chinese balloon was spotted over Latin America last week, which Beijing said was meant for “civilian use”.
‘Chinese spy balloons operated over five continents’
The White House on Wednesday said that China has operated a global fleet of espionage balloons similar to the one shot down last week.
“These balloons are all part of a (Chinese)… fleet of balloons developed to conduct surveillance operations,” Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters aboard Air Force One.
“Over the past several years, Chinese balloons have previously been spotted all over countries across five continents.”
‘US not the only target’
The Chinese spying has gone on for “several years,” sending four balloons over the US alone, a Pentagon spokesman said.
At a news conference this week, secretary of state Antony Blinken said the US had briefed dozens of countries about the full extent of the espionage.
“The United States was not the only target of this broader program, which has violated the sovereignty of countries across five continents,” Blinken said at a briefing alongside NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
Blinken said the US would reveal more about the balloon in coming days as it collects pieces of the craft, which was shot down on Saturday off the coast of South Carolina.
Why balloons?
Experts said the balloons have some advantages over the satellites that orbit the earth in regular patterns.
They fly closer to the ground and can evade radar.
Some officials said they are part of an effort by China to hone its ability to gather data about American military bases in the event of a conflict.
Kaymont, a US firm that makes and distributes weather balloons globally, said the balloon was likely made of plastic film, not latex.
Some descriptions thus far of the balloon debris being retrieved from the Atlantic Ocean say that there has been plastic.
By looks and by size, it resembles balloons made by US firm Aerostar, whose own balloon was mistaken for the Chinese one while flying over Memphis.
Cybersecurity concerns
Meanwhile, the balloon has shifted focus on China’s global spying operations.
FBI director Christopher Wray has repeatedly said the Chinese government has a larger hacking programme than all other countries combined, used to steal personal and corporate data and lucrative source code.
China’s government, Wray said in a speech last year, “has the global reach and presence you’d expect of the leadership of a great nation, but it refuses to act the part and too often uses its capabilities to steal and threaten, rather than to cooperate and build.” He said in a separate address in London last summer that the Chinese government “poses the biggest long-term threat to our economic and national security.”
The threat was laid bare in 2014 when the Justice Department, in a first-of-its-kind prosecution, charged five Chinese military officials with hacking into private sector companies in an effort to steal trade secrets.
The following year, Chinese hackers accessed personal information on millions of federal government workers in a hack of the Office of Personnel Management.
Subsequent Justice Department indictments have charged Chinese hackers with stealing information from health care insurer Anthem Inc., and with breaking into the computer networks of the Equifax credit reporting agency and obtaining the personal data of tens of millions of Americans.
Technology concerns
The US has long warily regarded China-based companies suspected of having the potential to improperly access user data.
US officials are in private talks about the fate of TikTok, the hugely popular video app that is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance. Wray in December raised national security alarms about the company, saying China could use the app to collect data on its users and has the ability to control the app’s recommendation algorithm. TikTok says it has been working to assuage those concerns.
And the US for years has taken action against Chinese tech giant Huawei, alleging that it has the capacity to facilitate spying — a claim the company vigorously denies. Last month, the Biden administration stopped approving renewal of licenses to some US companies that have been selling essential components to the Chinese company.
(With inputs from agencies)




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