August 24th, 2012
07:30 AM GMT
Hong Kong (CNN) - A group representing international companies in China has warned members that police in Beijing, Hebei and Shandong have required international firms to purchase Internet monitoring devices or risk having their connections cut.
The Quality Brands Protection Committee (QBPC), a group aimed at safeguarding intellectual property rights in China, sent an email to its 216 members late last month warning of the police visits, saying it "would cause serious concerns from our members."
The emailed alert, copies of which were provided to CNN, raise particular concerns for international businesses operating in China because many companies often use private networks that allow employees to skirt China's so-called "Great Firewall" of censors. But, based on the QBPC alert, it appears firms in some areas are being asked to install a device within their private systems to track all internet activity– and that information must be made available to police, looking for "illegal activity."
"Reportedly, if they failed to do so, the police threatened to cut off their Internet connection and fine them."
Another QBPC member company received a questionnaire from the local police unit asking about its Internet security measures, according to the QBPC email. "Given that if the local PSB (public security bureau) initiative were carried forward, it would cause serious concerns from our members, we are attempting to determine if any of our other 200-plus member companies have faced this same situation or know other member companies who have," Davis wrote.
The email doesn't detail which companies were targeted. The QBPC membership represents a broad swath of international firms with operations in China, including technology companies like Apple, Nokia and Emerson, consumer product makers such as Anheuser-Busch, Procter & Gamble and Colgate-Palmolive, and automotive companies Toyota, Audi and Volkswagen AG. Time Warner, the parent company of CNN, is also a member.
Davis has confirmed that he sent the email obtained by CNN. A spokesperson for QBPC said, so far, the group has received 15 replies from its members. Three member companies were asked by police to install internet logging equipment and two reported police requests to inspect their internet security measures. The others reported no contact from police.
QBPC wouldn’t name the members who were approached. “The three companies are in different industries,” the spokesperson said. “Based on the members’ response, it seems the police visits are isolated incidents.” QBPC has reported the incidents to the Ministry of Commerce and “had informal discussion with various departments of the MPS (Ministry of Public Security).”
Thomas Parenty, an information security specialist and former employee of the U.S. National Security Agency, said the devices could be used to spy on foreign companies and creates industrial espionage concerns.
"From an information security perspective, something like this in place in a company's network could be used for exploratory attacks into the network itself," Parenty said. "It's a Trojan horse that fits in a computer rack.
"If you're concerned about IP (intellectual property), you might as well roll up your tents because it's essentially game over," Parenty said.
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