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.
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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.”Skip to next paragraph
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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.