Sometimes, it seems like the US and China are engaged in an online Cold War. Accusations fly back and forth about spying and stealing of intelligence.
Just last week, the US Justice Department indicted five Chinese nationals for hacking into prominent American companies.
But the surveillance is worse inside the country. And it's part of the reason why Adam Brookes chose China as the location for his new thriller, "Night Heron." The former China correspondent for the BBC says it's his attempt to imagine spying today. "A lot of spying is now done behind a computer keyboard," he says. "But it has not pushed completely out of the limelight the need for human spies."
The book deals with the complexities of what happens when human spies deal with the cyber world. Publisher's Weekly gave "Night Heron" a starred review and provides a concise synopsis of the storyline:
Li Huasheng (aka Peanut) has recently escaped from a remote Chinese labor camp after nearly 20 years of confinement for selling military secrets — a livelihood that he has now resumed with the help of one of his former conspirators who evaded capture. Meanwhile, Philip Mangan, a freelance British journalist recruited by his own country's spies to serve as a messenger for Peanut, wants to sell a software key that would give the West access to China's national security secrets, including information about troubles with its new nuclear missiles.
The story is taken from a personal experience. While working in Beijing, Brookes had a man try to sell him Chinese military secrets. Brookes declined. He suspected the man was just trying to see if he was indeed a journalist and not a spy. Plus, he could get into huge trouble if he accepted. But the story stayed with him. "I became interested in trying to feel out what goes on in this huge spy effort that exists between China and the West," he says.
Brookes thought about trying to put together a non-fiction book to explain it. But he says it's extremely difficult to get enough detail to write a coherent book. Instead, he took what he knew about espionage in China and imagined the rest. It's a phenomenal read.
It describes the culture of surveillance in China. Everywhere you look, someone is more or less looking at you. Brookes says surveillance in China is remarkable. "It's all around you all the time," he says. "It's most visible on the street in central Beijing, where multiple cameras are on every single lamp post."
His characters, much like journalists in Beijing, are very much aware of such surveillance. In the book, disassembling their smartphones before having a talk at a cafe is routine. Brookes says if you want to have a private conversation of any sort, you shouldn't be doing it within the hearing of a mobile phone.
He says this isn't something new. Whenever he met with officials in Beijing several years ago, the first thing they asked him was to take the battery out of his mobile phone. If you're wondering what to do with an iPhone — Brookes says to leave it in another room. He laughs, but he's not joking.
"We're only at the beginning of all this," he says. "We're not sure how this is going to pan out, and we're not sure what the security fixes are going to be."
Until then, the spies will have to go to extreme lengths in order to avoid detection and maintain privacy. It's no doubt a difficult task. But it's one heck of pleasure for readers.