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Cyber Spies and Heinous Lies

“I could hardly stop It was so exciting,” the boy mumbled. “I went to the Internet cafe almost every day, and was dreaming of making girlfriends.” Half drunk one night, Xiao Yi sneaked into the student dormitory and raped a 15-year-old girl. “If I had not seen the porn websites, I would not have done such a thing,” the teenager says wistfully. Sadly, Xiao Yi is not an exception. Jin Hua, deputy director of the Beijing juvenile facility, said about 20 percent of the offenders last year committed rape, and almost all of them said porn websites were to blame.

In 2006, an article appeared in the China Daily (and subsequently on the China Daily website) that told the story of Xiao Yi, a seventeen year old who had been jailed for 10 years for raping a fifteen year old girl. “If I had not seen the porn websites, I would not have done such a thing,” he told a reporter.

The CCP began its campaign to “purify the internet environment” with a crackdown on porn sites in April 2007. As AP reported, Zhang Xinfeng, deputy public security minister, was under no allusions as to where the roots of the darker side of the Internet reside. “The boom of pornographic content on the internet has contaminated cyberspace and perverted China’s young minds. The inflow of pornographic materials from abroad and lax domestic control are to blame for the existing problems in China’s cyberspace.” What followed were a few arrests for hosting “cyber strip shows” and a major clampdown on the myriad blogs and search engines hosting in China. Cai Wu, director of the Information Office of China’s Cabinet, told Xinhua that as more and more illegal and unhealthy information spreads through the blog and search engine, we will take effective measures to put the BBS, blog and search engine under control.”

Throughout the year, the government produces a list of guidelines for ISPs and Internet companies to follow. China Digital Times publishes translations of the latest set of rules, which says that posts the criticize the Chinese political system should be “absolutely blocked or deleted” – information about the tiger being skinned and beheaded should be deleted, and all sorts of other rather distasteful stuff, including the rather chilling “Strengthen positive guidance. Web sites should proactively guide public opinion in a positive way, highlight positive voices and create a pro-NPC online environment.”

The technological savvy of the CCP is its strength. While the Soviet Politburo aged into a distant and disconnected leadership, the CCP has not only seen how technology can be of benefit to the country’s economy, but they are also very aware of how a technology could be subverted into a tool that, in a worst case scenario, could lead to them losing power. The Party has long since acknowledged that controlling the Internet is crucial to maintaining their political supremacy. Western investments and web companies therefore face something of a dilemma – they must fall in line with the draconian censorship laws that exist in mainland China in order to capitalize on the largest market in the world. Fortunately, the American companies that supply hardware to the Chinese government to facilitate censoring have already made their decision, as well as Yahoo, and now, Google – the company that once prided itself on not being evil – is now under the thumb of a totalitarian dictatorship.

The initial motivations of preventing the perversion of political ideals have been the basis of the argument in favor of policing and restricting activities on the Internet. That’s what some people would argue. Other people make a slightly more convincing argument, and it has nothing to do with keeping the people pure of thought. The pervasive theory is that while media websites such as Youtube and Flickr have captured a large portion of worldwide users, Chinese copycat start ups have been having a hard time establishing a user base. The answer was fairly obvious – block access to the foreign sites which would force users to use the Chinese sites, and essentially poach business from existing companies.

The motivation for blocking access are therefore little to do with politics and more to do with commercial concerns, after all, Yahoo has helped to track down and jail online dissidents by handing over emails that were held on their servers in mainland China. Since Flickr is owned by Yahoo, it seems unlikely that the Chinese authorities would block a site that is owned by a long time collaborator of the Chinese regime. Flickr had plans to establish version of it’s photo hosting site specifically for Chinese users, but this would be based in Taipei, something of a smart move to evade the CCP’s demands for Internet censorship in the mainland. In the case of Victor Koo’s Youku service, a copy of Youtube’s video hosting site with the added advantage that due to China’s lax enforcement of copyright laws it hosts full length movies and TV shows.

Far from being terrified into not using the Internet, Chinese internet users have taken over the medium. Today, there are more Internet users in China than in any other country. How Chinese people use the Internet is much different from the way that westerners use the Internet. Instant messaging and streaming online music and video are the most popular pastimes for Chinese netizens.

Cyberspace is also where you can find the worst side of Chinese mob mentality. Incensed by the poor design of the Chinese Olympic Team’s official uniform, Internet users swore to hunt down the designer and ruin his career, and the online reports of Chinabounder, who wrote about his casual sexual encounters with Chinese girls, most of whom where his students, caused a national outrage – the protest was led through an article posted on a weblog. The online voices are the most extreme, and sadly, the ones that always seem to make the headlines, it appears that while no one seems to put much stock in the online opinions of Americans or British ‘net users, people are quite ready to accept the online comments of Chinese people to be something of a barometer of public feeling in China. The Chinese press has certainly leapt on the helpfully nationalistic outrage that seems to stream constantly from Chinese netizens.

Stories of Chinese hackers breaking into US computer systems are nothing new. The Chinese have taken the blame for everything from stealing World of Warcraft passwords to the numerous zero-day vulnerabilities in Windows Vista and Office 2007. A recent CNN story detailed one particular hacker team that claimed to have gained access to the Pentagon’s internal networks, more tellingly, they said that they were hired by the Chinese government to penetrate secure networks in America. Rather than being hired electronic terrorists, the Chinese government might just be protected its own networks – if the security at the Pentagon can be breached, then surely the software that runs the Great Firewall of China wouldn’t present much of a challenge – by giving encouraging overseas targets, attention is deflected from Chinese Internet infrastructure.

So what of the discovery of Ghost Net? The covert network was discovered by a Canadian research team called InfoWar that was asked to investigate suspected breaches in the security of the Tibetan government-in-exile.

Over a period of 10 months, InfoWar uncovered a large-scale cyber-spying organization based on the worm Gh0st Rat. The Gh0st Rat Trojan enables, amongst other things, a hacker to control the sound and webcams of a remote computer. Although the network was mostly based in Hainan, China, there was no conclusive proof that the Chinese government was directly involved, independent research has shown that the Chinese government made decisions that could only have been influenced by information gathered by the network.

Using unique IP addresses, information was traced back to government servers that were owned and operated by the People’s Liberation Army intelligence arm. The Chinese embassy in London countered the cyber-spying allegations, saying that “China is opposed to and would seriously deter hacking activities, and had enacted clear laws against hacking. Rumors about Chinese cyber-espionage are completely unfounded, and those attempting to smear China in this way would not succeed.” This comment was made despite 300 businesses being alerted to Chinese infiltration by the Director-General of MI5, Jonathon Evans.

According to the results of the investigation, published in the InfoWar Monitor, embassies of India, South Korea, Indonesia, Romania, Cyprus, Malta, Thailand, Taiwan, Portugal, Germany and Pakistan and the office of the Prime Minister of Laos had been penetrated and the foreign ministries of Iran, Bangladesh, Latvia, Indonesia, Philippines, Brunei, Barbados and Bhutan were also targeted.

While the vehement denials of any involvement with any kind of cyber-espionage have poured forth from both Beijing and Chinese embassies, the truth is that the Chinese government is probably as involved with country-to-country hacking as any other government is. The report from the investigative team itself says “Attributing all Chinese malware to deliberate or targeted intelligence gathering operations by the Chinese state is wrong and misleading… The most significant actors in cyberspace are not states…. In China, the authorities most likely perceive individual attackers [ie, teenagers in internet cafes] as convenient instruments of national power.” It’s just fashionable to accuse the Chinese of secretly and stealthily taking over the world one computer at a time, and the delicious irony that a country synonymous with Internet censorship should be famous for using it as a tool for world domination is just too hard for western hacks to ignore.

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