(Bloomberg) -- Plane tracking. Weather monitoring. Marking locations in mapping apps. 

China’s spy agency is now warning that these everyday acts are increasingly being exploited by foreign actors to harm the country’s national security. It’s the latest sign of increasing scrutiny of data flows, one that is likely to heighten risks for businesses operating in the world’s second-largest economy.

The Ministry of State Security has identified at least 11 kinds of data as being pilfered by malicious foreign entities since September, according to a Bloomberg News tally of its official WeChat posts. These unnamed actors are obtaining information about key issues such as food production, genetics and weather through software, non-governmental organizations and unwitting Chinese citizens, the agency said.

“MSS is operating on a ‘better safe than sorry’ mentality when it comes to data security,” said Dominic Chiu, senior analyst at Eurasia Group. “By mentioning those seemingly innocuous acts, MSS is making clear that its mandate encompasses all areas of security, and that the ministry is serious about enforcing the law and prosecuting those who violate them.”

In its latest warning, the MSS on Tuesday said that foreign forces are stealing China’s geographic data, which could reveal transport networks, critical infrastructure and military facilities. The ministry said it “struck like a thunder” to punish people and companies responsible and prevent the data from leaving the country.

Data security is something governments around the world are struggling to effectively address, from Europe’s landmark General Data Protection Regulation to the debate over TikTok’s information collection efforts in the US. 

But the heightening sensitivities of China’s security apparatus around data underscore the growing risks for foreign firms after Beijing expanded an anti-espionage law last year and enacted a sweeping data security law in 2021. 

President Xi Jinping unveiled a “holistic view of national security” back in 2014 that now encompasses 20 areas including biology, nuclear power and data. The data law, which prevents companies from sending restricted information abroad, has already forced many lenders and asset managers to create onshore data centers, adding costs and management barriers. 

The MSS has repeatedly denied that the security laws have worsened China’s business environment. On Sunday, it accused the Central Intelligence Agency in a bilingual post of smearing China’s anti-spy law. “You can do anything for intelligence while I shall do nothing against espionage?” the ministry said. It is “another typical case of hegemonic, domineering, and bullying practices of the USA.” 

China’s rising counter-espionage efforts come after CIA director William Burns said his agency has made progress in rebuilding its network in China following setbacks in the country. Tensions between China and the US have tentatively eased in recent months, though flash points remain over Taiwan and the South China Sea. 

Social Media Push

The MSS has taken on a higher profile as Xi and his coterie stress the need to better educate the public on national security. 

Since joining WeChat last summer, the ministry has posted frequently on the social media service on its efforts to secure national security, down to telling primary school students what photos not to post on social media. It has also revealed cases of alleged espionage by the US and UK amid a strategic struggle with Washington and its allies.

The agency’s social media push seeks to “educate the public and alleviate the burden of enforcement,” said the Eurasia Group’s Chiu. “It is the main reason why one of the most secretive agencies in the Chinese state has become one of the most communicative and public-facing in the last few months.”

In one post, the MSS said foreign entities and consultancies stole China’s agricultural data with the intention of disrupting its crops markets and, thereby, “profit from the chaos.” In another, it said overseas map companies lured Chinese users with virtual rewards to “check in” at sensitive sites. Overseas actors recruited aviation hobbyists to put plane trackers around China’s flying hubs to obtain both civilian and military data, the agency added. 

Some analysts suggested there’s a risk that a spy agency will simply see threats almost anywhere it decides to look.  

“When you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” said Yun Sun, director of the China program at Washington-based think tank Stimson Center.

--With assistance from Sarah Zheng.

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