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Alleged Chinese Spies Might Have Been Better Off Using Dollars

U.S. charges Chinese nationals after investigation that used an old espionage technique.

TikTok has recently been under fire for its involvement in an alleged plot to gather data on U.S. citizens. The social media company that allows users to upload, play and share videos is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance.

The accusation alleged two cases when a ByteDance team based in China went after TikTok data that could reveal the whereabouts of a U.S. citizen.

It was the latest accusation after several years of suspicion about the company's ties to the Chinese government and concern over what exactly it does with data it collects, such as location and content preferences it is able to compile from its users.

In fact, citing national security concerns in the summer of 2020, former President Donald Trump tried to ban TikTok from use in the United States. President Joe Biden eventually issued executive orders of his own that reversed Trump's, ending any legal action that could result in a ban.

But concerns persisted. In July 2022, FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr testified about TikTok use in the U.S. government and military. "Multiple U.S. military branches have banned TikTok from government-issued devices due to national security risks, including the Navy, Army, Air Force, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps," he said. "U.S. government officials have also urged troops and their dependents to erase the app from their personal phones."

Now, attention turns to a different Chinese company and some very disturbing developments with its ties to Chinese intelligence running illegal operations inside the U.S.

DOJ Unseals Charges

Two alleged spies were charged on Oct. 24 with obstructing a U.S. Department of Justice prosecution of an unnamed global telecommunications company based in China. While the company is not named in the indictment, CNN reported a source close to the investigation has said the company is Huawei.

The two Chinese intelligence officers, Guochun He and Zheng Wang, allegedly schemed to steal information from the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York related to the ongoing criminal investigation. 

The two were bribing a U.S. government employee who they believed was working for China, but was, in fact, a double agent working for the FBI, the Department of Justice said. 

"Far more than an effort to collect information or intelligence, the actions of the PRC intelligence officers charged in this case must be called out for what they are: an extraordinary intervention by agents of a foreign government to interfere with the integrity of the U.S. criminal justice system, compromise a U.S. government employee, and obstruct the enforcement of U.S. law to benefit a PRC-based commercial enterprise," stated Assistant Attorney General for National Security Matthew G. Olsen.

Cryptocurrency Was Used for the Bribes

Instead of using U.S. dollars, the payments, which amounted to $61,000,  were conducted using Bitcoin transactions. Some saw this news as continuing evidence that cryptos are often used for illegal practices, while others suggest that U.S. authorities were able to track the transactions down specifically because they had used cryptocurrency.

Twitter user @Terry8710Peng writes "the covert nature of cryptocurrency makes it more suitable for bribery."

"If the dollar was used, no one would have ever known this," writes @BTMCompliance with a contrary point of view.

Regardless of the means used to attempt the bribery, "the Department of Justice will not abide nation-state actors meddling in U.S. criminal process and investigations, and will not tolerate foreign interference with the fair administration of justice," Olsen said.