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Downed Chinese spy balloon over U.S. used an American provider for espionage

Downed Chinese spy balloon over U.S. used an American provider for espionage Chinese surveillance balloons over the U.S. collected and transmitted information (photo: Getty Images)

Employees of American intelligence have determined that the Chinese spy air balloon that flew over the United States this year used an American internet provider for communication, according to NBC News.

As reported by two current and one former U.S. official, the balloon was connected to an American company to send and receive messages with China, primarily related to navigation. This connection allowed the balloon to transmit packet transfers or high-speed data collections over short periods of time.

According to many current and former U.S. officials, the Biden administration sought an exceptionally secret court order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for collecting intelligence information about it while it was over the United States.

Official sources noted that such a court decision would allow U.S. intelligence agencies to conduct electronic surveillance on the balloon during its flight over the U.S., as well as during the sending and receiving of messages to and from China, including messages transmitted through an American internet provider. The court decision is not disclosed.

At the same time, the company denies that the Chinese balloon used its network. They mentioned that this conclusion is based on their own investigation and discussions with U.S. officials.

China regularly spies on various countries

NBC News notes that, according to many former U.S. officials, Chinese intelligence has previously covertly utilized commercial providers in various countries, often as backup communication networks. They often seek encrypted networks or networks with reliable security protocols to enable secure communication, officials say.

U.S. efforts to monitor the communication of the balloon could be one of the reasons why representatives of the Biden administration insist that they received more intelligence from the balloon than it obtained during its flight over the U.S.

Secret data has been securely protected

Senior officials in the administration stated that the U.S. was able to protect sensitive objects on the ground since they closely monitored the predicted flight trajectory of the balloon. U.S. military personnel relocated or disguised sensitive equipment so that the balloon couldn't collect images or videos while it was over land.

After the balloon was shot down on February 4, the commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), General Glen VanHerck, told journalists that the U.S. military and intelligence took exhaustive measures to guard against the possibility of intelligence collection using the balloon.

After the balloon was shot down, a high-ranking representative of the State Department stated that it was used by China for surveillance and was equipped with signals intelligence collection equipment.

According to the official, the aerostat had multiple antennas, including an array that likely could collect geolocation information. The device also drew power from massive solar panels, generating enough energy to operate the intelligence collection sensors.

However, representatives of the Defense Department and intelligence stated that, according to U.S. assessments, the aerostat could not transmit intelligence data to China while it was over the country's territory.

Chinese surveillance balloons over U.S. territory

In early February 2023, a high-altitude reconnaissance balloon was discovered in the northern United States. Subsequently, military officials determined that the object was a Chinese reconnaissance aerostat.

The first balloon was shot down by the U.S. military on February 4. Later, four similar objects were also shot down over the territory of various states.

Washington speculates that despite the interceptions, China may have gathered information from several secret American military facilities. However, the Pentagon could not confirm whether Beijing was able to obtain real-time intelligence.

China officially claimed that the objects were meteorological balloons and accused the Biden administration of an overly sharp and nervous reaction. Spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, Liu Pengyu, stated that it was a meteorological balloon that accidentally entered U.S. airspace.