Chinese Hackers Are Luring Diplomats With Promises of Porn

Let’s say you’re a spy working for a major international power, and you’d like to gain access to the internal deliberations of a certain group of foreign ministries. Ideally, you’d like to provide the head of your government with information about foreign governments’ trade deliberations and the negotiating position these countries are likely to adopt ...

Cancan Chu/Getty Images
Cancan Chu/Getty Images
Cancan Chu/Getty Images

Let's say you're a spy working for a major international power, and you'd like to gain access to the internal deliberations of a certain group of foreign ministries. Ideally, you'd like to provide the head of your government with information about foreign governments' trade deliberations and the negotiating position these countries are likely to adopt at an upcoming trade summit.

How would you go about obtaining this information? You could of course scour open source information -- press reports, statements by country leaders, etc. -- for clues as to how they will approach the negotiations. You could also attempt to recruit informants at these nations' embassies in your own country. Or you could recruit someone within the relevant ministries.

But upon consideration you realize that these tactics are either unlikely to deliver the results you're looking for or are just too risky. Wouldn't it just be easier if you could tap into foreign ministry servers and steal the documents or emails with the information you need?

Let’s say you’re a spy working for a major international power, and you’d like to gain access to the internal deliberations of a certain group of foreign ministries. Ideally, you’d like to provide the head of your government with information about foreign governments’ trade deliberations and the negotiating position these countries are likely to adopt at an upcoming trade summit.

How would you go about obtaining this information? You could of course scour open source information — press reports, statements by country leaders, etc. — for clues as to how they will approach the negotiations. You could also attempt to recruit informants at these nations’ embassies in your own country. Or you could recruit someone within the relevant ministries.

But upon consideration you realize that these tactics are either unlikely to deliver the results you’re looking for or are just too risky. Wouldn’t it just be easier if you could tap into foreign ministry servers and steal the documents or emails with the information you need?

That calculation is partly why hacking activities on behalf of sovereign nations has skyrocketed. But that increase in hacking has also come with a twist on age-old spy techniques. In a scheme that came to light Tuesday, the computer security firm FireEye revealed that Chinese hackers managed to gain access to the foreign ministry servers of five European countries by sending their diplomats emails with a link that promised to provide naked photos of Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, the wife of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

In short, a classic spy trick has gone digital.

The use of attractive, alluring women — and a fair number of men — is a proven tool of spycraft. In 1986, when an Israeli technician travelled to London with the intent of exposing his country’s nuclear program to the London Sunday Times, Israel dispatched a female agent. The paper stashed him a house in the suburbs of London while the attempted to verify his story, but before they managed to do so, the technician, a man by the name of Mordechai Vanunu, told the Times that he had met a woman — the agent, of course, — and that they would be going to Rome for the weekend. While there, he was seized by Israeli agent and shipped back to Israel for a prompt trial on charges of treason.

But the Israeli operation, while elegant, pales in comparison to other honey trap operations. During the 1950s, the notorious East German spymaster Markus Wolf developed a cadre of spies consisting of his most handsome, intelligent spies. He nicknamed them his "Romeo spies," and they were sent into West Germany to seduce the increasing number of women headed toward positions of power in post-war Germany. With a dearth of men following the war, women were suddenly ascendant in German society, and this created an opportunity for Wolf. The plot was wildly successful. One agent developed through the Romeo program passed information on the West’s deployment of nuclear weapons. Another managed to place herself as a secretary in the office of the West German chancellor at the time, Helmut Schmidt.

Now, Chinese hackers have taken the same concept and put a digital spin on it. But rather than having to go through the long process of creating a fictitious relationship, the digital lure simply trades on the basic sex drive of straight, male European diplomats who have probably all found their minds wandering toward the lithe figure of Bruni during one interminable European summit meeting or another.

Markus Wolf is probably smiling from his grave.

 Twitter: @EliasGroll

More from Foreign Policy

A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed  according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.
A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.

Why Do People Hate Realism So Much?

The school of thought doesn’t explain everything—but its proponents foresaw the potential for conflict over Ukraine long before it erupted.

Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.
Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.

China’s Crisis of Confidence

What if, instead of being a competitor, China can no longer afford to compete at all?

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.
Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.

Why This Global Economic Crisis Is Different

This is the first time since World War II that there may be no cooperative way out.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.

China Is Hardening Itself for Economic War

Beijing is trying to close economic vulnerabilities out of fear of U.S. containment.