It was an innocuous-looking photograph that turned retired to beryllium the downfall of Zheng Xiaoqing, a erstwhile worker with vigor conglomerate General Electric Power.
According to a Department of Justice (DOJ) indictment, the US national hid confidential files stolen from his employers successful the binary codification of a integer photograph of a sunset, which Mr Zheng past mailed to himself.
It was a method called steganography, a means of hiding a information record wrong the codification of different information file. Mr Zheng utilised it connected aggregate occasions to instrumentality delicate files from GE.
GE is simply a multinational conglomerate known for its enactment successful the healthcare, vigor and aerospace sectors, making everything from refrigerators to craft engines.
The accusation Zheng stole was related to the plan and manufacture of state and steam turbines, including turbine blades and turbine seals. Considered to beryllium worthy millions, it was sent to his accomplice successful China. It would yet payment the Chinese government, arsenic good arsenic China-based companies and universities.
Zheng was sentenced to 2 years successful situation earlier this month. It is the latest successful a bid of akin cases prosecuted by US authorities. In November Chinese nationalist Xu Yanjun, said to beryllium a vocation spy, was sentenced to 20 years successful situation for plotting to bargain commercialized secrets from respective US aviation and aerospace companies - including GE.
It is portion of a broader conflict arsenic China strives to summation technological knowhow to powerfulness its system and its situation to the geopolitical order, portion the US does its champion to forestall a superior rival to American powerfulness from emerging.
The theft of commercialized secrets is charismatic due to the fact that it allows countries to "leapfrog up planetary worth chains comparatively rapidly - and without the costs, some successful presumption of clip and money, of relying wholly connected indigenous capabilities", Nick Marro of the Economist Intelligence Unit told the BBC.
Last July FBI manager Christopher Wray told a gathering of concern leaders and academics successful London that China aimed to "ransack" the intelligence spot of Western companies truthful it tin velocity up its ain concern improvement and eventually predominate cardinal industries.
He warned that it was snooping connected companies everyplace "from large cities to tiny towns - from Fortune 100s to start-ups, folks that absorption connected everything from aviation, to AI, to pharma".
At the time, China's past overseas ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Mr Wray was "smearing China" and had a "Cold War mentality".
'China seeks to topple our status'
In the DOJ connection connected Zheng, the FBI's Alan Kohler Jr said China was targeting "American ingenuity" and seeking to "topple our status" arsenic planetary leader.
Zheng was an technologist specialising successful turbine sealing exertion and worked connected assorted leakage containment technologies successful steam turbine engineering. Such seals optimise turbine show "whether by expanding powerfulness oregon ratio oregon extending the usable beingness of the engine", the DOJ said.
Gas turbines that powerfulness craft are cardinal to the improvement of China's aviation industry.
Aerospace and aviation instrumentality are among 10 sectors that the Chinese authorities are targeting for accelerated improvement to trim the country's dependence connected overseas exertion and yet surpass it.
But Chinese concern espionage is targeting a wide scope of different sectors too.
According to Ray Wang, laminitis and CEO of Silicon Valley-based consultancy Constellation Research, they see pharmaceutical improvement and nanotechnology - engineering and exertion conducted astatine the nanoscale for usage successful areas specified arsenic medicine, textiles and fabrics and automobiles. A nanometre is simply a billionth of a meter.
It besides includes pharmaceuticals, bioengineering - mimicking biologic processes for purposes specified arsenic the improvement of biocompatible prostheses and regenerative insubstantial growth.
Mr Wang cited an anecdote by a erstwhile caput of probe and improvement for a Fortune 100 company, who told him that "the idiosyncratic helium entrusted the most" - idiosyncratic truthful adjacent that their children grew up unneurotic - was yet recovered to beryllium connected the payroll of the Chinese Communist Party.
"He kindly explained to maine that the spies are everywhere," helium said.
In the past concern espionage from countries specified arsenic Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore was a concern, Mr Marro said. However erstwhile indigenous firms look arsenic innovative marketplace leaders successful their ain close - and truthful commencement to privation to support their ain intelligence spot - past their governments commencement passing authorities to instrumentality the contented much seriously.
"As Chinese firms person go much innovative implicit the past decade, we've seen a marked strengthening of home intelligence spot rights extortion successful tandem," Mr Marro said.
China has besides gained expertise by making overseas companies manus implicit exertion nether associated task agreements successful speech for entree to the Chinese market. Despite complaints the Chinese authorities has ever denied accusations of coercion.
Hacking woody a 'joke'
There person been attempts to rein successful hacking specifically.
In 2015 the US and China struck a woody successful which some sides pledged not to transportation retired "cyber-enabled theft of intelligence property, including commercialized secrets oregon different confidential concern accusation for commercialized advantage".
By the pursuing year, the US National Security Agency had accused the Chinese of violating the agreement, though it did admit that the quantity of attempts to hack authorities and firm information had dropped "dramatically".
But observers accidental the deal's wide interaction has been minimal. Mr Wang said it was a "joke" owed to a deficiency of enforcement. Chinese cyber-espionage successful the US has been "pervasive" and extends to world labs. "It has been going connected successful each facet of Western businesses," helium told the BBC.
However Lim Tai Wei from the National University of Singapore noted that determination were nary "definitive uncontested studies" connected the grade of the phenomenon.
"Some judge that determination was a abbreviated dip successful Chinese cyber espionage against the US, but resumed its erstwhile level thereafter. Others judge it failed owed to the wide breakdown successful US-China relations," helium said.
Meanwhile the US is present straight trying to artifact China's advancement successful the cardinal semiconductor manufacture - captious for everything from smartphones to weapons of warfare - saying China's usage of the exertion poses a nationalist information threat.
In October, Washington announced immoderate of the broadest export controls yet, requiring licences for companies exporting chips to China utilizing US tools oregon software, nary substance wherever they are made successful the world. Washington's measures besides forestall US citizens and greenish paper holders from moving for definite Chinese spot companies. Green paper holders are US imperishable residents who person the close to enactment successful the country.
Mr Marro says that portion these measures volition dilatory China's technological advance, they volition besides accelerate China's efforts to region US and different overseas products from its tech proviso chains.
"China has been trying to bash this for years, with muted success, but these argumentation goals present bid greater urgency arsenic a effect of the caller US controls," helium said.
With China besides invoking its ain nationalist security, the scramble for a technological borderline betwixt the world's 2 biggest economies is lone apt to intensify further.
But Mr Wang reckons that the US inactive holds the advantage.
"My cyber-security friends archer maine erstwhile they hack Chinese sites, the lone worthwhile tech [they tin find there] is US intelligence property," helium said.