The Canadian military recently revealed that spy buoys were found in the Arctic Ocean in 2022, leading experts to suspect that China was behind the planting of the devices to keep tabs on US nuclear-powered submarines, especially those carrying nuclear warheads. This revelation followed the sighting of a Chinese surveillance balloon that crossed the United States earlier in the year.

Utilization of Dual Purposes

Dual use is the possibility of an invention or development with positive and negative applications. It refers to the capability of an item, technology, or other invention to be employed for either constructive or destructive objectives.

This SMATH probe, pictured in the Comoros Islands, has a double duty; both keep tabs on the water quality and serve as a lookout for any possible military activity.

Last year, the Globe and Mail reported the finding of buoys in the Canadian Arctic. However, information about their shape, location in Canadian or international waters, or whether they were removed was not mentioned. 

The Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces of Canada declared they are “fully cognizant of recent activities by China to conduct surveillance operations in Canadian airspace and maritime boundaries with the help of dual-purpose technologies.”

These dual-purpose technologies can be utilized for both civilian and military purposes. For example, a group of hydrophones can record the activity of ocean life and the ocean floor. However, it can also be used to pick up the acoustic signatures of submarines for their specific identification.

The Globe and Mail cited a retired Canadian major general who speculated that China might have been utilizing buoys in the Arctic to track US Navy nuclear submarine activity. These buoys were likely equipped with hydrophones and disguised as oceanographic research vessels but were used to record the sound of ships passing by. This would give the Chinese an idea of the patrol routes of American nuclear-missile armed submarines.

Chinese Espionage

The Chinese government uses a variety of methods to acquire information from the United States, from purchasing firms that possess intellectual property to cyber theft. Federal investigators have connected cyberattacks to groups with links to the Chinese government. China has also capitalized on individuals of Chinese origin living in the West, particularly students and staff at American universities and corporations, to recruit spies. They have sought to persuade them to help China out of a sense of loyalty without always realizing that this could violate American laws. This has resulted in instances of unfair scrutiny of Chinese Americans in the US, where they may be viewed with suspicion of being disloyal to the country.

As noted in this NYT expose

Perhaps most unsettling is the way China has sought to exploit the huge numbers of people of Chinese origin who have settled in the West. The Ministry of State Security, along with other Chinese government-backed organizations, spends considerable effort recruiting spies from this diaspora. Chinese students and faculty members at American universities are a major target, as are employees at American corporations. The Chinese leadership “made the declaration early on that all Chinese belong to China, no matter what country they were born or living” in, James Gaylord, a retired counterintelligence agent with the FBI, told me. “They started making appeals to Chinese Americans saying there’s no conflict between you being American and sharing information with us. We’re not a threat. We just want to be able to compete and make the Chinese people proud. You’re Chinese, and therefore you must want to see the Chinese nation prosper.”

Stripped of its context and underlying intent, that message can carry a powerful resonance for Chinese Americans and expatriates keen to contribute to nation-building back home. Not all can foresee that their willingness to help China could lead them to break American laws. An even more troubling consequence of China’s exploitation of people it regards as Chinese is that it can lead to the undue scrutiny of employees in American industry and academia, subjecting them to unfair suspicions of disloyalty toward the United States.

The dual-purpose spy buoys were only discovered after Chinese surveillance balloons flew over large portions of North America for days, ultimately causing an F-22 from the US Air Force to shoot one down.


As China does not possess a specialized surveillance aircraft equivalent to the US Air Force U-2 spy plane, they must employ more intrusive methods to monitor our forces. Due to these limitations, its Navy and Air Force rarely venture as far as North America. They do have a network of spy satellites that orbit the globe in a predictable manner. However, one must assume that they alone cannot gather all of the intelligence that China desires. This forces the nation to resort to lower tech intel gathering technologies like balloons and buoys.