On Oct. 17, 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake hit California’s Bay Area destroying buildings, bridges and freeways and causing landslides and tsunamis. Sixty-three people were killed and thousands more were injured. It was one of the biggest earthquakes to hit the region in over 80 years.
After the devastating quake, many folks applied for government relief funds established under President Bush. The president allocated roughly $3.5 billion to help the people of northern California.
Rick Smith, who worked for the FBI’s counterintelligence San Francisco Soviet squad at the time, used this opportunity to meet a potential spy.
Spies Among Us
The FBI had learned that a known Soviet spy working under diplomatic cover had filed a claim for losses from the earthquake. When Smith heard this, he believed it was an opportunity to make repeated payments to the spy in the hopes of being able to recruit him to work on behalf of the U.S.
At the first meeting, Smith along with fellow FBI agents told the Soviet, “We can offer your full claim, come meet us again.” The spy agreed. However, at the second meeting, the Soviet spy didn’t come alone…
He brought with him the head of Soviet counterintelligence in San Francisco. At that point, the operation was over. The fact that the Soviet boss was there meant that the spy the FBI was attempting to turn had simply reported the whole thing to his boss.
The reality is when most people think about espionage in the U.S., they picture spies working out of embassies in Washington, D.C., or conducting dead drops in wooded parks in northern Virginia. While this is true, the fact is there are spies all over the U.S. — and the number of foreign spies is growing, especially in Silicon Valley.
Obviously, these spies aren’t targeting government secrets, but rather, they’re looking for trade and technology information they can share with their government. The problem is most tech companies aren’t prepared to deal with espionage.
And it’s not only Russia that is operating heavily in Silicon Valley. Chinese agents are also carrying out spying in hopes of sharing technology with Chinese companies.
Silicon Valley is known for its liberalism. Many technology companies are inept or too politically delicate to increase security protocols and screenings of their employees.
In other words, they don’t want to hurt any feelings or upset the political climate. In addition, many tech companies in Silicon Valley simply don’t report cases of potential tech espionage.
According to LaRae Quy, a former Palo Alto-based FBI counterintelligence agent, “They would have an employee sell technology to, say, the Russians or the Chinese, and rather than let their stockholders or investors know about it, they just let it walk.”
In July, for example, a Silicon Valley-based Apple employee, Xiaolang Zhang, allegedly stole information on Apple’s self-driving car technology to benefit a China-based competitor.
You’re on Your Own
Here’s the thing: Spying in Silicon Valley isn’t new. It’s been going on for decades, but has increased dramatically in recent years — especially by Russia.
The reason this is such a concern is because everyone knows Silicon Valley is the tech capitol of the world. And sadly, many of these tech companies don’t take the necessary security steps to keep out potential spies.
When it comes to technology, it’s up to you to protect yourself since you can’t rely on the tech companies to do so. The big tech companies say they care about cybersecurity and protecting your privacy, but it’s not true.
This is why you have to be careful when you are turn your life over to technology and the expanding Internet of Things. Whether it’s your thermostat or refrigerator or home automation hub (like Alexa), hackers can easily tap into these devices to spy on you.
So the next time you consider allowing some device to have access to your location or the camera on your phone or any personal information at all — you may want to think twice.