Internet & Tech

China’s now famous five

Beijing furious as US indicts five of its army officers for hacking

A combination photo of five military officers of China's People's Liberation Army

Hackers or heroes?

Perhaps the US Department of Justice shouldn’t have chosen this particular week – the one year anniversary of Edward Snowden’s flight to Hong Kong (which led to his subsequent revelations about the activities of the NSA’s surveillance network) – to indict five Chinese military officers for stealing industrial secrets. No matter whose side you take on the broader issue of hacking, few would dispute that the Department of Justice’s timing is somewhat ironic.

The five men, all of whom are said to belong to unit 61398 of the People’s Liberation Army, were charged in absentia by a court in Pennsylvania, Bloomberg reported.

“The lifeblood of any organisation is the people who work, strive and sweat for it,” said David Hickton, the prosecuting attorney. “When these cyber intrusions occur, production slows, plants close, workers get laid off and workers lose their homes.”

American authorities maintain that hundreds of US firms have been infiltrated by Chinese hackers in the last decade. But in this case, only six were named: Alcoa, Allegheny Technologies, United States Steel, Toshiba Corp unit Westinghouse Electric, plus American subsidiaries of SolarWorld and a steel workers’ union.

Reaction in China was swift and vehement. New US ambassador Max Baucus was summoned to the Chinese foreign ministry for a meeting with Assistant Foreign Minister Zheng Zeguang, where Washington was slammed as “overbearing and hypocritical”.

“The United States seriously violated the norms of international relations, breached China-US cooperation in cyber security and badly hurt China-US ties by fabricating information and indicting Chinese military officers on allegations of cyber theft,” the ministry said in a statement.

The defence ministry weighed in too: “The US’ deceitful nature and its practice of double standards when it comes to cyber security has long been exposed from the Wikileaks incident to the Edward Snowden affair.”

China’s public position on cyber espionage is that it is the victim rather than the perpetrator of such attacks.

But while Washington concedes that it uses technology to spy on other nations, it claims that it draws a distinction between doing so on national security grounds and for commercial gain – which is one of the aspects of the alleged Chinese espionage said to concern US policymakers the most.

“We’ve told the Chinese we know they spy on us for military purposes and we spy on them for military purposes, which is what big powers do. What’s weird is when you spy purely for commercial purposes, and that has to stop,” Bloomberg quoted James Lewis, an expert in cyber security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, as saying.

The Chinese don’t see it that way. Their view is that hacking is hacking. And even if China is guilty, that the US is doubly so – and far more expert at it, as Snowden’s many leaks have made plain.

And to further prove its point Xinhua released government statistics on American Trojan Horse networks and botnet servers active in China between March 19 and May 18. A total of 1.18 million host computers in China were said to have been infiltrated. In the same period, Xinhua said that 2,016 IP addresses from the US had opened backdoors in 1,754 Chinese websites, involving 57,000 attacks.

“America is like a thief shouting ‘catch that thief’,” one netizen wrote on weibo.

Others joked about the timing of the charge, asking if America had amnesia or if it was a case of being “China’s turn” this year.

“Am I mistaken or wasn’t it just a year ago that the US was caught spying on its own people?” one person asked.

Other netizens enjoyed themselves by altering the ‘WANTED’ posters the FBI had issued for the five men and changing the banner heading to ‘HEROES’.

“These men should be given medals,” said one of the group’s many admirers.

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