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Is China hacking? A veteran correspondent recounts hints of surveillance

An intelligence service in Britain is warning that business travelers in China are targets of state hacking, and the Monitor recently reported that the FBI suspects China stole valuable bid data from US energy companies computers. A former China correspondent recounts his own brushes with surveillance.

By Staff writer / February 2, 2010

The Google logo is seen on the top of its China headquarters building behind a road surveillance camera in Beijing on January 26.

Jason Lee/Reuters

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Paris

Taken together – China’s “Googlegate,” and the newly disclosed British MI5 warnings on business traveler espionage in China – are helping bring global attention on a long-standing problem.

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First, Chinese hackers got caught toying with Google accounts of human rights investigators. US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton gave a tough speech in January on Internet freedom and against arresting bloggers, saying “an attack on one country’s network is an attack on us all.” The Foreign Correspondent’s Club of China (FCCC) sent a warning note to members about foreign bureau emails being hacked and diverted to other accounts.

But it's the tip of the iceberg.

Some sense of the iceberg’s size is hinted at in a Christian Science Monitor exclusive Jan 17, showing that three major US oil companies were hacked and “bid data” -- details on the “quantity, value, and location of oil discoveries worldwide” -- was compromised. Many experts think the hack came from the People’s Republic of China.

What’s new about “Googlegate” is the open discussion. A US company and the White House seem to agree on rules and norms on Internet protection -- and say so openly. Gady Epstein, a veteran correspondent in China now with Forbes, states: “I see that as a good thing.”

So now it comes out that British firms were warned by MI5, the intelligence service, a year ago about espionage on British execs and travelers to China – asserting that the People’s Liberation Army and the Public Security Bureau try to plant Trojan horse malware in the computers of foreign energy, public relations, and defense firms.

The behavior itself is not new. In 2000 when I started work in Beijing I was told that all forms of communication were compromised – save, for some reason, fax machines. Cell phones were easily tapped and could be used as a microphone by the Public Security Bureau – even when the phone was shut off.

The extent of such intrusion came out in the 14-page British report, titled “The Threat from Chinese Espionage,” which contains references to honey traps, manipulation, and other games: “Hotel rooms in major Chinese cities such as Beijing and Shanghai which have been frequented by foreigners are likely to be bugged. Hotel rooms have been searched while the occupants are out of the room,” the report asserts.

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