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Mata Hari on the Demer? 


Have Russian spies infiltrated Hasselt University? Are our Limburg academics easy prey for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army? Do we need to watch out for spooks these days when we attend the New Year’s reception? “We have to avoid becoming paranoid at all costs, but it is good to be vigilant and shield our academic knowledge adequately,” said the spokesman for the State Security Service (VSSE), better known as State Security.   

March 2021. Our country has expelled some 21 Russian diplomats on suspicion of espionage. They are people who were working at the Russian embassy in Brussels and the Russian consulate in Antwerp. They are accredited as diplomats, but allegedly engaged in espionage. 

“Espionage is back from never really going away,” kicks off the spokesman for State Security (VSSE), who prefers not to be named in the article. “During the period of the attacks, the VSSE prioritised terrorism due to a lack of capacity to equally engage in all of our statutory missions. Now spying is also back at the top of the agenda. Belgium, and more specifically Brussels with its European institutions, NATO and other international organisations, is an area of interest to foreign intelligence agencies. 

Our country also boasts many spin-offs from universities and other companies that manage scientific or high-tech knowledge. This could also be of interest to certain foreign services. Can we be more specific? How many spies a country or a region has at any one time is a fluid notion and also, by definition, difficult to determine. But the presence of certain institutions may attract services that have an interest in acquiring a certain type of knowledge.”  

Favouritism and destabilisation
But what exactly does espionage entail? Should we watch out for people in long raincoats on a bench peering from behind an oversized newspaper? “Espionage and meddling are threats that, by definition, have low visibility,” explains the VSSE spokesperson. “In that context, intelligence is gathered or influence exerted in a deceptive or clandestine manner. This can be done, for example, by interfering in networks of interest to the intelligence agent. In this way, spies acquire an undue advantage that they then use to their advantage in diplomatic or commercial negotiations.”  

“In the period of the attacks, State Security focused on terrorism, whereas now, espionage is back at the top of the agenda.  

That’s how intelligence services can favour national companies from these countries or vice versa, an adversary or a geostrategic competitor can be destabilised. Some states also use espionage and meddling as a means of exercising or gaining control over their communities in our country. Especially foreign intelligence agencies, their agents or allies employ such methods. It’s not just Russia or China then: numerous foreign powers use it.”  

Also in Limburg? “An unknown foreign guest professor you met at a conference invites you out for dinner. You get on well and meet more than once. Because of the friendship that develops, you let your guard down and you begin to share your impressions and all kinds of gossip about the members of the executive committee. It’s important to remain vigilant if you get the impression that there’s more to it than just a friendly encounter.”  

 ”Spies often pose as diplomats, journalists, officials, lobbyists, researchers, professors or students.” 

Behind a facade of courtesy
“Offensive foreign intelligence agencies work very discreetly and use covers,” the VSSE spokesman continues. “Their spies pretend to be diplomats, journalists, officials, lobbyists, researchers, professors or any other position, as long as it is legitimate or credible enough for them to interact with you. Belgium has hundreds of foreign intelligence officers working under cover. The way people are manipulated can take very different forms. It may be a professional or friendly relationship with a hidden agenda, concealed behind a facade of courtesy, shared ideological or cultural references and flattery. This type of relationship is usually out of kilter: usually the other person will take the initiative in contacts and always shows himself to be generous and helpful. Those seemingly innocent acts serve to create a climate of trust, but that false friendship is the breeding ground for manipulation.”  

What type of individuals should we pay particular attention to? “It’s dangerous to generalise,” State Security warns. “We always have to look at the context we’re in. But if certain academic or economic interests arouse the interest of foreign services, we must be aware that covers can be used to extract information. Some foreign students, for example doctoral students, attend Belgian universities or do internships in innovative companies with the aim of collating maximum technical or academic knowledge. They can also focus on a company’s internal organisation in order to access information that they can pass on to services in their country of origin.”  

The smokescreen of Wang P.
“Chinese Wang P. began as a doctoral student at the law faculty of the Free University of Brussels in the 2010-2011 academic year,” writes investigative journalist Lars Bovéin the newspaper De Tijd of 22 May 2022. “After returning to China in September 2012, he signed on again in Brussels at the start of the academic year in 2015 to finish his doctoral thesis. The VUB did not pay the Chinese doctoral student. He was funded by the Chinese government through a scholarship. Although his doctoral thesis was supposed to be ready as early as 2018, that was still not the case last year after more than a decade of research. In a memo early last year, State Security warned that Wang P. poses a danger to Belgium’s security. He had appeared on the radar in the fight against meddling and espionage. Both his behaviour and his contacts with secret agents point to the doctoral student working for Chinese intelligence services, according to State Security. His status is a smokescreen for travelling around the European Union, among other things.”  

Chinese army in the auditorium
A Flemish academic testifies anonymously in De Tijd: “We regularly get requests from Chinese students to work here for one or two years. The Chinese government then pays for that research through the China Scholarship Council grants. All we need to do is coach that Chinese researcher. When I received such a request recently, I only checked whether the researcher’s work matched my expertise, whether his command of spoken English was good enough and whether he came from a ‘top-ranking university’. That turned out to be the case. Beyond that, I didn’t give the matter any more thought. Only later did I discover that he was in the military. At no point was this made clear to me beforehand. Even when he worked here, the man just seemed like a doctoral student like all the others. The technology we researched together also lends itself to military purposes. Only over time did ‘people’ point this out to me. When I did a more thorough check of his university, it turned out to be affiliated with the Chinese military. It was naive of me, I wouldn’t do it again now. Even my colleagues struggle with this notion. Everyone kind of sets their own boundaries. But there’s clearly a need for awareness.”  

“Espionage is much like a jigsaw puzzle, each part representing an additional element that can be used against your own interests.”  

In pursuit of vulnerable people
“Espionage is not limited to the theft of confidential or secret documents,” the VSSE spokesperson divulges. “Espionage is much more like a jigsaw puzzle, each part representing an additional element that can be used against your own interests. Foreign spies may be interested in information about the internal workings of your organisation, its structure, its personal problems and interests, as well as interpersonal relationships or even just contact information. Needless to say, it involves diplomatic or economic interests, but also countless other areas, including research, innovation, investment, media, immigration and religious affairs. Even centralised databases and those who have access to them can also be targeted.”  

US-German questions of national security
The threat is not just from China. For example, the German Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), one of Germany’s three secret services, seemed to have no problem at all spying on Belgians. This was revealed in May 2015 in leaked documents from a hearing behind closed doors in the German parliament. How the Germans then specifically spy on Belgians came to light that same week during a press conference held by Austrian MP Peter Pilz and Belgian MP Stefaan Van Hecke (Green). They revealed that for years, the BND intercepted telecommunication lines to and from Belgium at the behest of the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA). For Belgium, it involved 15 different communication lines, 10 of which were through former telecom company Belgacom. The then US Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas was quick to appease and responded in the Tagesspiegelam Sonntag newspaper as follows: “The US intelligence agency NSA, with the help of the German intelligence agency BND, did not engage in corporate espionage. We did not engage in economic espionage that would give American companies an economic advantage. That’s not how we work.” According to Mayorkas, cooperation with BND was only about ‘questions of national security’.  

Frustration leads to manipulation
“Offensive intelligence services specialise in manipulating people. They exploit the vulnerabilities and frustrations of individuals. Lack of recognition, mounting resentment or unresolved performance problems provide an ideal breeding ground for manipulation. That’s why a healthy and caring HR policy is essential to nip such frustrations in the bud. Ensure that access to the most sensitive data is reserved only for staff members who need it as part of their daily work. By working on a need-toknow basis, you will reduce the risk of misusing this information. And a procedure for destroying sensitive information ensures better protection of confidentiality.”   

Travelling abroad
But even those who set off on a trade mission or plan an overseas business trip had better be prepared. “That’s why it’s highly recommended to use a separate aircraft for overseas business trips. Outside our borders, we are more vulnerable and the offensive services are stronger there. Travel presents a prime opportunity for espionage. That’s why it’s necessary to take additional precautions. Reduce the risk by keeping the number of documents on your device to the bare minimum and securing your data carriers.”  

“Even if the consequences are not always tangible, it’s important to understand that the threat can be real.  

Trade mission hacked
For example, the Belgian trade mission led by Princess Astrid of Belgium to China was heavily targeted by Chinese hackers. In the process, automated attacks were carried out on laptops, apps were surreptitiously installed on smartphones, and data traffic was diverted through transmission towers in vans near the hotel where the trade delegation was staying. “On Monday afternoon, I was getting 130 automatic attacks per hour on my laptop. Two apps were added to my mobile phone without me noticing it,” CEO and founder Geert Baudewijns of security company Secutec told De Tijd newspaper. He was on the trade mission and spent most of that trip analysing hacking attacks in his hotel room. Baudewijns says he was prepared, but still surprised by the ferocity of the hacking attacks. “I knew there were going to be attacks. Such a trade mission involving the princess and numerous ministers works like a red rag on a bull. But it was much worse than I expected.” For example, in the lobby of the Beijing hotel, Baudewijns detected that smartphones with activated bluetooth were being targeted. Use of VPN software, for a secure connection to the Internet, made little difference, De Tijd writes, because it was anticipated by the attackers. After all, they knew which VPN program the Belgian government recommended. In addition, mobile data traffic was diverted, via about three transmission towers in vans that had been parked around the trade delegation’s hotel.  

How can you protect your company or institution against such practices? “To protect yourself, it’s of the utmost importance to be aware of your vulnerabilities and protect yourself as much as possible,” the State Security spokesperson concludes. “Making your employees aware of this is certainly no unnecessary luxury, quite the contrary. “Even if the consequences are not always tangible, it’s important to understand that the threat can be real.  

© POM Limburg 2024
POM Limburg implements the socio-economic policy of the province of Limburg.

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