Information: Cheap, Available, and Easy to Obtain

April 9, 2024

green-dino_thumb_thumb_thumbThis essay is the work of a dumb dinobaby. No smart software required.

I worked in Sillycon Valley and learned a few factoids I found somewhat new. Let me highlight three. First, a person with whom my firm had a business relationship told me, “Chinese people are Chinese for their entire life.” I interpreted this to mean  that a person from China might live in Mountain View, but that individual had ties to his native land. That makes sense but, if true, the statement has interesting implications. Second, another person told me that there was a young person who could look at a circuit board and then reproduce it in sufficient detail to draw a schematic. This sounded crazy to me, but the individual took this person to meetings, discussed his company’s interest in upcoming products, and asked for briefings. With the delightful copying machine in tow, this person would have information about forthcoming hardware, specifically video and telecommunications devices. And, finally, via a colleague I learned of an individual who was a naturalized citizen and worked at a US national laboratory. That individual swapped hard drives in photocopy machines and provided them to a family member in his home town in Wuhan. Were these anecdotes true or false? I assumed each held a grain of truth because technology adepts from China and other countries comprised a significant percentage of the professionals I encountered.


Information flows freely in US companies and other organizational entities. Some people bring buckets and collect fresh, pure data. Thanks, MSFT Copilot. If anyone knows about security, you do. Good enough.

I thought of these anecdotes when I read an allegedly accurate “real” news story called “Linwei Ding Was a Google Software Engineer. He Was Also a Prolific Thief of Trade Secrets, Say Prosecutors.” The subtitle is a bit more spicy:

U.S. officials say some of America’s most prominent tech firms have had their virtual pockets picked by Chinese corporate spies and intelligence agencies.

The write up, which may be shaped by art history majors on a mission, states:

Court records say he had others badge him into Google buildings, making it appear as if he were coming to work. In fact, prosecutors say, he was marketing himself to Chinese companies as an expert in artificial intelligence — while stealing 500 files containing some of Google’s most important AI secrets…. His case illustrates what American officials say is an ongoing nightmare for U.S. economic and national security: Some of America’s most prominent tech firms have had their virtual pockets picked by Chinese corporate spies and intelligence agencies.

Several observations about these allegedly true statements are warranted this fine spring day in rural Kentucky:

  1. Some managers assume that when an employee or contractor signs a confidentiality agreement, the employee will abide by that document. The problem arises when the person shares information with a family member, a friend from school, or with a company paying for information. That assumption underscores what might be called “uninformed” or “naive” behavior.
  2. The language barrier and certain cultural norms lock out many people who assume idle chatter and obsequious behavior signals respect and conformity with what some might call “US business norms.” Cultural “blindness” is not uncommon.
  3. Individuals may possess technical expertise unknown to colleagues and contracting firms offering body shop services. Armed with knowledge of photocopiers in certain US government entities, swapping out a hard drive is no big deal. A failure to appreciate an ability to draw a circuit leads to similar ineptness when discussing confidential information.

America operates in a relatively open manner. I have lived and worked in other countries, and that openness often allows information to flow. Assumptions about behavior are not based on an understanding of the cultural norms of other countries.

Net net: The vulnerability is baked in. Therefore, information is often easy to get, difficult to keep privileged, and often aided by companies and government agencies. Is there a fix? No, not without a bit more managerial rigor in the US. Money talks, moving fast and breaking things makes sense to many, and information seeps, maybe floods, from the resulting cracks.  Whom does one trust? My approach: Not too many people regardless of background, what people tell me, or what I believe as an often clueless American.

Stephen E Arnold, April 9, 2024


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