Although Obama and Chinese president Xi Jinping have come to an “understanding” regarding state-sponsored hacking of corporate secrets, the agreement did not extend to traditional espionage activities between foreign governments. Illustrating the divides that will remain between the two nations after upcoming talks at the UN General Assembly next week, Xi decided to stay at the now Chinese-owned Waldorf Astoria, while Obama broke tradition by staying at the nearby Lotte New York Palace.
Following the Waldorf’s purchase last fall by the Angbang Insurance Group, the company announced its intention for a major renovation of the building. White House security became wary on the news, as a result of multiple instances of Chinese-backed cyber security breaches over recent years.
During the annual UN General Assembly, American Presidents have stayed at the Waldorf in a tradition dating back to UN’s founding.
Following the Waldorf’s transfer of ownership, U.S. delegates to the UN have also been ordered to avoid lodging there.
According to Council on Foreign Relations cybersecurity expert Adam Segal, these precautions are not unusual, “Countries have been known to exploit their connections. People build embassies and it's happened before that other countries have found bugs hidden in the walls."
Previous instances of spying included a clear case by the U.S. in 2002. Its delivery of a Boeing 767 to China was intended to serve as then-president Jiang Zemin’s version of Air Force One, with a full complement of eavesdropping devices, which were found upon the plane’s dismantling by Chinese personnel.
In light of the hotel’s change in ownership, U.S. ambassador to the UN Samantha Powers will also be vacating what had been the traditional residence for that position. This year’s UN General Assembly will be the first for president Xi, as well as the first time back for Russian president Vladimir Putin, who was absent for a decade.