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Devices used for illegal flight data collection seized

By ZHANG YI | | Updated: 2024-01-07 20:32
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Chinese security agencies have cracked down on foreign organizations that have been recruiting aviation enthusiasts in China as "volunteers" to illegally collect and transmit flight data, the Ministry of State Security said.

In a nationwide operation, authorities seized hundreds of deployed devices used for the illegal activities, and those involved will face legal penalties, the ministry said over the weekend.

The foreign organizations were found to be looking for targets among aviation enthusiasts with active accounts on major Chinese online platforms, including Sina Weibo and video-sharing websites, the ministry revealed.

They sent customized recruitment advertisements via email and text messages. In these ads, the organizations exploited the passion and curiosity of aviation enthusiasts by offering free equipment and shared aviation information as bait.

The organizations used international courier services to send portable signal receiving devices, similar in size to regular smartphones, to newly recruited volunteers. They then remotely guided them to deploy the devices near aviation hubs within China.

The devices enabled the automated collection of aircraft information, including aircraft models, altitude, longitude, latitude and speed. The collected data was transmitted in real-time to servers designated by the organizations.

Security agencies have discovered that these organizations have extensively deployed such devices in provinces surrounding the Bohai Sea, East China Sea and South China Sea. The devices have the potential to gather information related to military aircraft.

The devices were found to possess powerful capabilities, supporting remote online programming and customizable functions. They were equipped with satellite navigation chips for targeted aircraft positioning. The collected data was rapidly transmitted to foreign servers through encrypted channels.

It was estimated that each device could transmit flight data from approximately 1,000 aircraft and around 130,000 location data points per day. With a coverage radius of 300 to 400 kilometers, about 300 devices would be enough to cover the whole country, according to the ministry.

The operation of a large number of such devices could cause signal interference in both civilian and military air traffic control systems, posing a significant threat to aviation safety.

The ministry also warned that the theft, espionage, bribery or illegal provision of data related to national security and interests by foreign organizations, institutions or individuals, or collusion with domestic organizations, institutions or individuals constitute espionage under Chinese law.

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