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For China activists, hacking attacks a fact of life

June 14, 2011

By Peter Apps, Political Risk Correspondent

LONDON, June 12 (Reuters) - Even working on her laptop in Amnesty
International's London headquarters or talking on her mobile phone
going around the city, Corinna-Barbara Francis suspects Chinese
authorities are listening in.

At a time when authorities in Beijing are carrying out the most
serious crackdown on dissent since Tiananmen Square, the human rights
group's China researcher says she simply assumes all her electronic
data is already compromised.

Whether or not she is right is almost impossible to know. Beijing
angrily denies any suggestions of official complicity in a string of
recent high-profile computer hacks including Internet giant Google
GOOG.O., which said it traced an attempt illicitly to access accounts
of activists and others to China.

"We get dozens of attempts every day -- viruses and worms -- trying to
attack our systems," Francis told Reuters, saying many appear to
originate in China though proving it was much harder. "I simply assume
that everything is being read. I would not keep the name of a
particularly sensitive contact on my laptop, send it by e-mail or
discuss it by phone."

Such tradecraft has long been common among activists operating in
authoritarian states. The difference now, she says, is that the
borderless nature of the Internet means activists assume the reach of
state spies from sophisticated authoritarian states now extends into
the very fabric of western nations.

"Even in the UK, the phone system is not beyond the reach of the
Chinese government," she said. "I might write a name down... with
paper and pen but often I won't even do that."

One colleague, she said, was so nervous that she would not discuss
sensitive material anywhere near a mobile phone anywhere in the world
unless its battery was removed, for fear it has been hijacked as a
listening device.

Security experts disagree on how realistic such fears may be. The
bottom line, they say, is that any sophisticated state in the 21st
century has formidable powers to read almost any electronic
information it wishes. So do a rising number of independent hackers,
despite ever-tightening security systems.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) this weekend became the latest
organisation to say it was probing an attempt to access its data and
some security experts suspect a nation state.

A rising number of major companies -- including Sony (6758.T: Quote,
Profile, Research, Stock Buzz), defence giant Lockheed Martin (LMT.N:
Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) and Citigroup (C.N: Quote,
Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) -- have also suffered high-profile
hacking attempts.

Some have been tentatively traced to China, where security experts
suspect authorities both turn a blind eye to hackers and sometimes use
them for their own ends. Others appear linked to western
antiestablishment hackers such as Anonymous.

Some western intelligence experts suspect China's rulers are also keen
to make sure young computer experts are kept focused on internal or
external enemies rather than be tempted to hack the computers of those
in charge in Beijing. Chinese officials say they are also victims of
hacking, say western states too have failed to eradicate criminal
computer activity on their turf and call for all countries to work
together to produce a more regulated, safer Internet.

POST-ARAB SPRING CRACKDOWN

But with data stolen ranging from commercial secrets to customer
details, experts say firms may have to get used to making the same
assumptions about state surveillance and hacker penetration that
activists have long accepted.

At the very least, they should be more alert for attacks.

Cui Weping, a professor at the Beijing Film Academy who has spoken out
against restrictions on freedom of speech and other issues, said her
Gmail account was among those briefly locked by Google apparently
because it had been hacked.

"This has happened before," she said. "My Gmail account is suddenly
inaccessible because my password has been changed... and then I can't
open it. Who knows what they are after?"

China has long focused on trying to control dissent and debate on the
Internet and within its borders. Surveillance is widespread, websites
such as Twitter are blocked and officials keep close tabs on
officially run social media platforms.

Western spy agencies too are widely assumed to monitor e-mails and
telephone calls, primarily to track militants and criminals, but most
experts believe China is able to devote many thousands more
intelligence agents to the task.

Since the "Arab Spring" brought revolution to Tunisia and Egypt,
Chinese officials seem to have become much more nervous.

Arrests have increased -- including some of individuals providing
information to human rights groups and whose identity is believed to
have been detected from e-mail or phone taps.

As in Russia -- another authoritarian state where those in power are
seen concerned about online dissent -- dissident websites have come
under more cyber attacks this year.

There have long been suspicions of massive Chinese state spying on
dissidents and others. In a 2009 investigation into computer malware
and hacking into computers, the civil society group Information
Warfare Monitor uncovered a network of hundreds of infected computers
they dubbed "Ghostnet".

Its report said that whoever the hackers were, they were operating
from Chinese servers, recording keystrokes and activating microphones
and webcams to turn computers into bugging devices.

But some say many online intelligence gathering efforts are much less
sophisticated, and often easily detected.

"When I opened my inbox there was a prompt telling me to enter my
personal information for safety purposes and to change my password and
fill in a forwarding e-mail address," said one China activist on
condition of anonymity, saying it was one of several e-mails
apparently intended to trick the recipient into giving up access
details or downloading malware. "I ignored it".

(Additional reporting by Beijing bureau, editing Tim Pearce)

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