US cables link China to Google hacking: WikiLeaks

Sunday, December 5, 2010

WASHINGTON - Chinese leaders were obsessed with the threat posed by the internet search engine Google and sought to obtain the secrets of rivals through hacking, especially of the US, the embassy cables leaked by Wikileaks have claimed.

A cable, titled “Google China Paying Price for Resisting Censorship” sent May 18, 2009, quoted a well-placed source as saying that Li Changchun, China’s Politburo Standing Committee member and the country’s propaganda chief, was surprised to learn that Chinese-language searches were allowed on Google’s main website, The New York Times reported.

Li, after apparently searching for information online on himself and his children, was reported to have stepped up pressure on Google. He ordered three state-owned Chinese telecommunication companies to stop doing business with Google.

Li also demanded that Google executives remove any link between its sanitised Chinese website and its main international one, which he deemed “an illegal site”, the cable said.

According to the Times, that cable from the US diplomats was one of many made public by WikiLeaks that portray China’s leadership as nearly obsessed with the threat posed by the internet to their grip on power - and, the reverse, by the opportunities it offered them, through hacking, to obtain secrets stored in computers of its rivals, especially the US.

Extensive hacking operations suspected of originating in China, including one leveled at Google, are a central theme in the cables. The operations were aimed at a wider array of American government and military data than generally known.

Another cable sent early this year quoted a Chinese person with family connections to the elite as saying Li himself directed an attack on Google’s servers in the US, though that claim has been called into question.

In an interview with The New York Times, the person cited in the cable said Li personally oversaw a campaign against Google’s operations in China but the person did not know who directed the hacking attack.

The cables also revealed that Google faced heavy pressure to comply with Chinese censorship laws and the coercion began years before the company finally decided to pull its search engine out of China last year in the wake of the successful hacking attack on its home servers, which yielded Chinese dissidents’ e-mail accounts and Google’s proprietary source code.

The demands on Google went well beyond removing material on subjects like the Dalai Lama or the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, the daily said.

Chinese officials also put pressure on the US government to censor the Google Earth satellite imaging service by lowering the resolution of images of Chinese government facilities, warning that Washington could be held responsible if terrorists used that information to attack government or military facilities, the cables show.

A cable referring to the hacking attack on Google said: “A well-placed contact claims that the Chinese government coordinated the recent intrusions of Google systems. According to our contact, the closely held operations were directed at the Politburo Standing Committee level.”

The cables revealed that a surveillance system dubbed Ghostnet that stole information from the computers used by the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and South Asian governments and was uncovered in 2009 was linked to a second broad series of break-ins into American government computers code-named Byzantine Hades.

The Chinese claimed that Google Earth, the company’s satellite mapping software, offered detailed “images of China’s military, nuclear, space, energy and other sensitive government agency installations” that would be an asset to terrorists.

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