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Chinese cranes can spy on US ports, be taken over, officials warn

Chinese President Xi Jinping. (Lan Hongguang/Xinhua/Sipa USA/TNS)
March 06, 2023

Chinese-made cranes that move cargo at ports across the U.S. are now considered to be a potential spying tool, a revelation that comes as China-linked products face increasing skepticism in the U.S. amid worsening relations in recent years.

National security and Pentagon officials have likened ship-to-shore cranes made by ZPMC, a China-based manufacturer, to Trojan horses, the Wall Street Journal reported. The popular, inexpensive cranes are equipped with advanced sensors that could track the whereabouts of military-related cargo, and the cranes can be remotely controlled to disrupt trade from afar.

Those two potential uses were highlighted in a classified 2021 assessment by the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Journal reported. Still, no instances of the cranes being used nefariously have yet been described by U.S. officials.

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An unclassified government study is required to be produced by the end of this year on whether foreign cranes at American ports threaten cybersecurity or national security, the Journal reported. The study was ordered as part of the military budget bill in December.

No cranes comparable to those made by ZPMC are manufactured in the U.S., according to the Journal. The company says it controls around 70 percent of the global crane market, and a U.S. official said nearly 80 percent of ship-to-shore cranes in U.S. ports are made by ZPMC.

The cranes are operated using software made in China, and U.S. officials said that Chinese nationals who sometimes come to the U.S. on two-year visas to work on the cranes could pose another intelligence-collection avenue.

The cranes join a growing list of Chinese products and services facing new scrutiny over ways they could be used against the U.S. by the Chinese Communist Party, which has a powerful influence on Chinese businesses. 

Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei has already been frozen out of the U.S. and other Western markets over data security concerns, and similar calls are heating up against the hugely popular Chinese-owned social media app TikTok. Recent years have also seen questions raised about Chinese-made baggage screening systems, electrical transformers, and smart TVs.

“Cranes can be the new Huawei,” former top U.S. counterintelligence official Bill Evanina said. “It’s the perfect combination of legitimate business that can also masquerade as clandestine intelligence collection.” 

A Chinese Embassy spokesperson criticized the crane concerns as “paranoia-driven,” the Journal reported.

“Playing the ‘China card’ and floating the ‘China threat’ theory is irresponsible and will harm the interests of the U.S. itself,” the spokesperson said.