Russia, China both continue to pose threat, expert says

Jul 18, 2018, 4:17 PM | Updated: Jul 19, 2018, 7:41 am

SALT LAKE CITY — The agent who heads up the counter-intelligence unit for the FBI Salt Lake City Division says Russia and China still very much continue to pose a threat to national security and to businesses, even in Utah.

Supervisory Special Agent Benjamin Barron tells FBI Confidential co-host, Sheryl Worsley, just because the threat is less obvious than it was during the Cold War doesn’t mean the threat is gone.

“I think it was a little bit easier, growing up, to understand that there were countries that were adversarial toward us, because they were more openly adversarial,” Barron says. “What we’re seeing now, though, is — I think Russia’s trying to project a picture of being a kinder, gentler Russia, but really, from where I sit and from what I see, it’s just kind of the same old thing.”

For example, Barron says, his unit is on the lookout for signs that a foreign government is stealing trade secrets from the United States.

“We estimate hundreds of billions of dollars every year are being stolen by foreign adversaries from our businesses,” Barron says. “It really does a lot of damage to our country when our businesses are priced out of the market because their stuff has been stolen by a foreign competitor.”

For example, Barron referenced a case of stolen intellectual property: hybrid corn seeds. For American companies, this represented years worth of development as well as the cost of that development. In that case, the Chinese national who was ultimately sentenced was sending seeds from Iowa back to China.

Corn seeds may not exactly sound like the stuff of James Bond, but Barron says there are plenty of other examples of espionage happening right here in the U.S.

“The ghost stories case was a case of illegals, or NOCs (non-official covers) that had come here – people that were not officially declared as being any type of Russian diplomats or in any way affiliated with the Russian government,” Barron says.

In that case, in a story that sounds like it came straight out of the FX spy drama “The Americans,” agents of the Russian government had come here, in some cases under false identities, posing as ordinary residents, but in reality working to build relationships that would, they hoped, influence policy in a way that benefitted Russia.

Among other techniques, in the ghost stories case, the spies were using something called steganography.

“Basically that involves embedding a message inside a digital photograph,” Barron explains. “If you can find a sneaky way to embed information in those pictures, you can go on about your life and it just looks like you’re just sending pictures to your friend, and there’s nothing more to see here so move along.”

The ghost stories defendants also made use of more traditional “dead drops.”

“A dead drop, of course, is a place where you bury something: information that you want to hand off between a recruit and a spy. If you’re a spy, it’s generally a bad thing for you to be seen with the person that you’ve recruited to give you information,” Barron says. “So you use a dead drop. You pre-arrange a location to leave things so that you never have to be seen together.”

In the ghost stories case, Barron says it was years between the time that one person left money and information at a dead drop and the other person came to retrieve it.

“That’s a long time to sit and watch a spot where you think something’s going to happen, and that’s one of the daunting tasks with catching spies,” he says. “It sounds really cool and it gets glamorized in Hollywood and things like that, but in actuality, it takes a long time, and it can be very boring.”

Barron says much like any other type of crime, often the FBI learns about spy activity because someone spots something that looks out of place — a co-worker spending too much time at work at odd hours, for example, might just be really dedicated to their job. But they could also be working at odd times to share information with a foreign adversary when they won’t be interrupted.

Users can find FBI Confidential on the KSL Newsradio website and app, as well as Apple Podcasts and Google Play.

Listen on Google Play Music

Today’s Top Stories


Provo Police need help to identify and locate a suspect in a 2020 cold case shooting that happened ...
Devin Oldroyd

Provo Police Department asking for help solving a 2020 cold case

Provo Police need help to identify and locate a suspect in a 2020 cold case shooting that happened at the Missionary Training Center.
2 days ago
salt lake mayorMendenhall guns...
Curt Gresseth

After NY law is struck down, two Utah experts sound off on gun rights

Two advocates on either side of the gun-control vs. gun rights debate sound off on the Supreme Court's 6-3 ruling to expand the right to carry a firearm in public.
2 days ago
A men’s maximum-security unit in the new Utah State Correctional Facility in Salt Lake City is pi...
Lindsay Aerts

State leaders cut the ribbon on new Utah State Correctional Facility

After five years of construction, a ribbon cutting ceremony for the new Utah State Correctional Facility, located west of the Salt Lake City International Airport, was held Wednesday.
3 days ago
Salt Lake City Police are looking into a pair of armed bank robberies Tuesday night in the Salt Lak...
Mark Jones

Update: SLC armed robbery suspect taken into custody

Salt Lake City police are searching for Tanner Cram, age 27, a suspect behind a pair of alleged armed bank robberies Monday evening.
4 days ago
Salt Lake City Police Department recently conducted a speed enforcement operation, which resulted i...
Mark Jones

SLCPD issues 96 citations in recent speed enforcement operation

Salt Lake City Police handed out 96 citations to drivers, and issued 18 warnings to other drivers in a recent speed enforcement operation.
4 days ago
Speed limit sign that says the limit is 80 mph. The Washington County sheriff's office made a drug ...
Mark Jackson

Washington County Sheriff’s Office makes drug bust during traffic stop

The Washington County Sheriff's Office said one of its deputies kicked off the drug bust by making a traffic stop on I-15.
4 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Tax Harassment...
Jordan Wilcox

The best strategies for dealing with IRS tax harassment | You have options!

Learn how to deal with IRS tax harassment. This guide will teach you how to stop IRS phone calls and letters, and how to handle an IRS audit.
spend a day at Bear Lake...
Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

You’ll love spending the day at Bear Lake | How to spend a day at Bear Lake

Bear Lake is a place that needs to be experienced. Spend a day at Bear Lake.
Curb Appeal...
Price's Guaranteed Doors

How to have the best of both worlds for your house | Home security and curb appeal

Protect your home and improve its curb appeal with the latest security solutions like beautiful garage doors and increased security systems.
Prescription opioids can be disposed of during National Prescription Take Back Day...
Know Your Script

Prescription opioid misuse | How to protect your family from the opioid epidemic

Studies have shown that prescription opioid misuse has increased since COVID-19. So what do you need to know about these opioids?
Follow @ikeyospe...

Tax Tuesday: The Most Common Mistakes People Make When Filing Their Taxes

Fortunately, for most average earners, they will not end up owing overpayments received for the Child Tax Credit in 2021.
Follow @ikeyospe...

Tax Tuesday: How will last year’s child tax credits affect you?

Fortunately, for most average earners, they will not end up owing overpayments received for the Child Tax Credit in 2021.
Russia, China both continue to pose threat, expert says