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Japan police educating firms on foreign spy tactics to protect themselves from data theft

The National Police Agency's Tomoaki Yoshida explains spies' tactics during an online information session for businesses on Nov. 30, 2021. (Mainichi/Naritake Machida)

TOKYO -- The foreign affairs division of Japan's public security police, which specializes in spy cases, discloses little. Even if it arrests a spy, it announces the bare minimum of information. But the division is starting to change. To protect Japan from an economic security perspective, the division has come to proactively explain spies' tactics to Japanese corporations and others.

    Tomoaki Yoshida of the National Police Agency (NPA)'s Foreign Affairs Division was conducting an online information session from a building in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on Nov. 30. Who was he speaking to? Members of the Semiconductor Equipment Association of Japan (SEAJ), comprising semiconductor-related business operators. Some 40 companies participated through their computers.

    The NPA established a full-time squad dedicated to outreach in October 2020. It offers information to business associations and companies on the tricks used to leak data, and is also available for consultations. Yoshida heads the squad as its economic security measures officer.

    In the information session, Yoshida explained spy operations' current state of affairs. According to him, gathering political and military information used to be espionage's primary battlefield. But he stressed that "now, (private companies') technical information carries a lot of weight."

    Yoshida cited Russia, China, and North Korea as three countries that even now are trying to gather companies' technical information on a statewide scale. Of these, he used analogies to characterize the spying techniques of Russia and China known in the intelligence world.

    "Imagine you're on a sandy beach," Yoshida said. He asked the session's participants to think of each grain of sand as a piece of confidential information. Russia would set up a secret plan, and approach the beach by submarine in the middle of the night. Once there, it would pour the sand into glass bottles to take back to Russia. Russia characteristically uses tactics trained professionals would, Yoshida explained.

    Meanwhile, China would send in many families and tourists to the beach, and let them enjoy swimming in the ocean, according to Yoshida. China would then apparently have them bring the sand stuck to their bodies back to China. "A few grains of sand can be gained at once, but repeating this strategy over decades means that at some point the whole beach is stolen completely," he said. China, therefore, takes a long-term, labor-intensive method.

    The National Police Agency's Tomoaki Yoshida calls on semiconductor-related business operators to be careful of information leaks during an online information session on Nov. 30, 2021. (Mainichi/Naritake Machida)

    Yoshida then went on to introduce specific spy tactics. He went over one example that took place overseas, and 10 that happened in Japan, without revealing the names of the countries that did the spying or the affected companies.

    Among Yoshida's domestic examples was a case whose perpetrator was apprehended in 2020. A man claiming to be a foreign government official enticed an employee from a major communications firm to give him trade secrets.

    The perpetrator, a foreign national, pretended to have happened upon the communications company employee by chance, and reportedly asked them in fluent Japanese, "Do you know any good restaurants around here?"

    "In a time when cyberattacks are the norm, you might be disappointed to hear me mention these textbook tactics," Yoshida said. "But professional spies are still using (such tactics). Letting one's guard down leads to information leaks, and is a blind spot."

    In this case, the way the information was taken from the Japanese company was very sophisticated. The spy asked the company employee to access confidential information from their home, take a photo of the computer screen with a digital camera, and then save the photo onto an SD card.

    But the employee was then told to erase the computer monitor photo, and instead take and save a landscape photo onto the SD card. This was a precautionary measure; in the event the employee lost the SD card, all the card would have on it is the landscape photo, and no one would suspect secrets were being leaked. But once that SD card was in the professional's hands, the "erased" computer screen photo could be restored. "This tactic was awfully ingenious," Yoshida said.

    Until recently, Japanese foreign affairs police disclosed only limited information on cases they dealt with, because revealing more could raise the risk of exposing police information-gathering capabilities to perpetrators.

    But during outreach activities, police say they disclose information unreported by the media or otherwise kept secret. Yoshida told the Mainichi Shimbun, "We've shifted our mindset on economic security. We have to give more consideration to the fact that knowing spies' tactics leads to companies not becoming victims. We may take some risk, but having considered the merits (of disclosing information), we've started changing how we do things."

    SEAJ Secretary-General Akihide Kobayashi participated in the information session, and said, "The specific cases helped me understand the fraught state of affairs." He described being particularly struck by how foreign countries abuse legal methods such as joint research, corporate buyouts, and joint ventures. "We were given a lot of pointers on what our companies should do going forward."

    Police plan to accelerate outreach activities nationwide with hopes of creating a cycle of information. While providing companies, universities and others information gained from investigations, police would take consultations from bodies to accumulate more information, which would be leveraged to prevent damage before it happens. How will the police get this cycle going? That is what's key to the new role of the foreign affairs division of Japan's public security police.

    (Japanese original by Naritake Machida, Tokyo City News Department)

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