An official in Beijing laughed off fresh national security concerns surrounding Chinese-made hardware, after U.S. officials told The Wall Street Journal they were scrutinizing the giant cargo cranes widely used at American ports.
National security and Pentagon officials were reportedly reviewing vulnerabilities linked to ship-to-shore cranes made by Chinese state-owned firm ZPMC. Machines manufactured by the Shanghai-based heavy industries company—one of the world’s largest crane makers—have been in use in the United States for two decades.
The Chinese-made cranes, which also operate at ports used by the U.S. military, contain sophisticated sensors that could monitor logistics including “the provenance and destination of containers,” The Journal said, promoting concerns that the hardware could be used as a spying tool.
“The claim is complete paranoia,” Mao Ning, a spokesperson for China‘s foreign ministry, said at a regular press briefing in Beijing on Monday. She called the concerns “misleading to the American public.”
An aerial view of cranes and shipping containers at Lianyungang port in China’s eastern Jiangsu province. There are concerns in the U.S. about using cranes for spying. STR/AFP via Getty Images
ZPMC equipment enjoys a 70 percent global market share, and it makes nearly 80 percent of the cranes in use at U.S. ports, a U.S. official told the newspaper. ZPMC’s machines are well made and “significantly cheaper” than those produced by Western suppliers, the report said.
Among the concerns was the potential for the heavy-duty lifting equipment to be remotely controlled, the inference being that U.S. logistical operations could be disrupted.
The cargo cranes are reportedly delivered to the U.S. fully assembled and sometimes operated by Chinese nationals on U.S. visas, according to report, in which national security officials didn’t detail any instances of the machines having been exploited in the past.
ZPMC and the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency didn’t immediately respond to separate requests for comment.
Privately, however, the issue has been on Washington’s radar. In the $858 billion appropriations bill for 2023, signed by President Joe Biden late last year, lawmakers requested a study from the Transportation Department into “cybersecurity and national security threats posed by foreign manufactured cranes at United States ports.”
On the back of the recent Chinese high-altitude spy balloon incident, the latest scrutiny of hardware used at America’s major shipping ports reflects what U.S. officials now publicly acknowledge is a broad range of espionage tools at Beijing’s disposal, although it remains unclear if and when these methods have ever been exploited.
The changing nature of modern espionage has most prominently impacted the West’s view of technological vulnerabilities, leading to blanket bans on equipment made by Chinese telecoms firms Huawei and ZTE.
Last Wednesday, the House Foreign Affairs Committee advanced a bill to grant Biden the authority to restrict the popular video-sharing app TikTok. Two days earlier, a White House memo ordered all executive agencies to purge the app from government devices.
Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, told Fox News Sunday that he and South Dakota Republican Sen. John Thune would soon introduce bipartisan legislation with provisions to systemically “ban or prohibit” foreign technologies from entering the U.S., a law that, if passed, could immediately put TikTok under review.
“You have 100 million Americans on TikTok for 90 minutes every day,” said Warner, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee. “They are taking data from Americans, not keeping it safe. But what worries me more with TikTok is that this can be a propaganda tool.”
Scrutiny of TikTok is linked to ByteDance, its Beijing-based parent company and the developer of the original Chinese market app known as Douyin. TikTok says it’s an independent company and has never provided user information to the Chinese government—and wouldn’t do so if asked.
Mao, the Chinese spokesperson, accused the U.S. of “politicizing, instrumentalizing and weaponizing economic and technological issues under the guise of national security.”
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