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

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

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.

Recommended: 4 ways US can boost cyber security

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.

The report was promptly rebutted in the Beijing magazine Global Times, which quoted military strategist Dai Xu as saying that “MI5's report is purely unfounded fabrication.”

Journalists working in Beijing offer clues to the contrary: Once I came home early from a film series I’d been attending like clockwork on Fridays for months. I left the theater after 30 minutes and went straight home. I walked in the living room to find my computer turned on, and cookie crumbs littered on the keyboard. I don’t eat cookies, but kept a bag on the kitchen for guests. Hey, just who was in the cookie jar?!

Another time I returned home, switched on the laptop, and found a new list of files appearing in the “most recent” story field. All related to material gathered in a visit to Japan. I hadn’t opened them in weeks. Hmmm.

Is diverting emails – one of the charges of the FCCC and Google -- new? In 2003 our office computer was discovered to be diverting emails from an academic list serve to another address. We changed addresses and blocked access. What to do?

One thing we did was invite a senior Chinese engineer from Microsoft, a friend of a friend, to examine our computers. A brilliant guy, sympathetic. He examined the machines, installed state of the art filters. Then he casually said something I well remember: If someone really wants to hack your account, they can. “Most of the protection is psychological; it only makes you feel better,” he said.

The list goes on. We arrived in Beijing with a cordless phone. But the phone wouldn’t work in the next room. It turns out there was so many electronic bugging systems in the wall that the phone signal was wiped out.

Actually, after a while, a journalist takes a pragmatic view: China employs people to watch foreigners; it’s their job. That’s how China rolls now. It’s a one-party state. Moreover, Chinese patriots can marshal arguments of hypocrisy and double standards – pointing out that the US has long sent surveillance aircraft along its coasts, or that the US conducts surveillance on its own citizens, too, particularly since 9/11. That list also goes on. And it should and does get heard.

But it should not divert attention from the main issue: lack of transparency, and intrusions that go on and on, unmentioned. Unlike the stakes for journalists, they also involve large sums, and strategic information.

The tech-policy blogger Nate Anderson notes in the wake of Googlegate in China, “A basic message has crystallized … as editors and reporters cover the basic talking points and conduct interviews with Chinese officials: there's a double standard at work, all our censorship is legal, and China had nothing to do with Google hacking.”

Before leaving Beijing in 2006, I called my editor and for the first time set hard dates for departure. An hour later I went to lunch at a much-loved noodle shop. Minutes later a personable young woman approached me, and sat down. She soon got to the point: She represented a small moving company that relocated diplomats and journalists, just in case I might ever happen to need one. I took her card, and ended up using her service. It was a good move; nothing was broken.

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