Media

Is Someone in China Reading Your E-mails?

China has a vast intelligence-gathering operation of Chinese citizens recruited to spy on and hack into U.S. computers.

On Dec. 16, 2008, Timemagazine announced the annual People of the Year list. Barack Obama topped the list, and one runner-up was China's Zhang Yimou, the epic filmmaker and Olympic impresario, for creating "arguably the grandest spectacle of the new millennium," the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, which "showcased the rise of China as a world power."

The bland celebration of China’s version of Leni Riefenstahl dodged the uncomfortable truth that the Olympics enabled the Chinese Communist Party to expand its intelligence operations within the corporations and governments that flew to Beijing for a sports party.

China is now flexing its post-Olympic power with an aggressive new cyberespionage campaign, targeting government, military and civilians with equal force. If you use Windows, the Chinese Communist Party to knows how to hack into your laptop. If you have friends and associates in China, they're reading your e-mails.

The Pentagon, the State Department and the U.S. Congress have been monitoring China’s cyberintelligence campaigns for years. The Congressional Record has a long list of hearings on the matter. In 2008 press statements, the Pentagon report that Chinese cyberespionage has “increased dramatically” before and after the Olympic Games.

During preparations for the Olympics, China installed massive new surveillance and security systems with the generous assist of U.S. corporations Honeywell, General Electric, United Technologies and IBM. Throughout the Olympic gold rush, the Bush administration routinely sidestepped the 1990 law stipulating that high-tech must not benefit the Chinese military. After all, the People's Republic of China was a paying customer and owns a majority share of U.S. Treasury Bills.

The craven posturing of the International Olympic Committee and its corporate sponsors allowed Beijing party bosses to break every pledge to improve human rights, duly sworn when they lobbied for the contract. And what has the result been of this blind quest for corporate profit? On Nov. 20, 2008, the bipartisan U.S. China Economic and Security Review Commission sent its annual report to Congress. It states:

"China is targeting U.S. government and commercial computers for espionage (and) is stealing vast amounts of sensitive information from U.S. computer networks."

The Web site of the independent research consortium infowar-monitor.net provides updates on China's Web-infiltration methods. One alarming new report describes tracking devices carefully affixed into computers manufactured in China that route information to the Chinese Communist Party's Public Security Bureau. Cyberintelligence is linked into a vast intelligence-gathering operation of Chinese citizens recruited to spy for the Motherland known as "a thousand grains of sand." This network involves tourists, businessmen and some of the more than 100,000 Chinese students who study overseas each year. Every one is questioned by intelligence officers before and after their foreign tour and offered lucrative rewards for valued intelligence.

China's military academies are also diligently training thousands of young workers in computer hacking. Larry M. Wortzel, the author of a 2007 U.S. Army War College report on China's cybercampaigns said: "The thing that should give us pause is that in many Chinese military manuals, they identify the U.S. as the country they are most likely to go to war with. They are moving very rapidly to master this new form of warfare." Two Chinese army hackers produced a "virtual guidebook for electronic warfare and jamming" after studying dozens of U.S. and NATO manuals on military tactics.

Chinese hackers have made numerous incursions into classified U.S. networks. In November 2006, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Richard Goetze, a Naval War College professor, said the Chinese "took down" the entire Naval War College computer network -- an operation that prompted the U.S. Strategic Command to raise the security alert level for the Pentagon's 12,000 computer networks and 5 million computers. In June 2007, 150 computers in the $1.75 billion computer network at the Department of Homeland Security was quietly at work with programs that sent an unknown quantity of information to a Chinese-language Web site. Unisys Corp., the manager of the DHS computers, allegedly covered up the penetration for three months.

Do a brief Web search, and you will find a long list of U.S.-educated, high-level, Chinese-born agents serving time in U.S. prisons for spying and stealing military secrets for their homeland.  Last fall, FBI agents warned the Barack Obama and John McCain campaigns that Chinese networks were monitoring their computers. In June 2008, Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., revealed that computers in the House International Relations Committee had been hacked by Chinese agents. 

"These cyber attacks permitted the source to probe our computers to evaluate our system's defenses, and to view and copy information," said Wolf. "My suspicion is that I was targeted by Chinese sources because of my long history of speaking out about China's abysmal human rights record."

On Feb. 15, 2006, representatives of Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Cisco Systems were summoned before the House International Relations Committee to defend what Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., called a "sickening collaboration" with the Chinese government that was "decapitating the voice of the dissidents." The Web executives defended their dealings with the Chinese government on the grounds that China is a global market.

The global market provides endless opportunities for cyberespionage. A February 2005 report from the Defense Science Board states "a significant migration of critical microelectronics manufacturing from the United States to other foreign countries has [occurred] and will continue to occur." America's defense systems are based on "trusted and classified" microchips. "Trust cannot be added to integrated circuits after fabrication; electrical testing and reverse engineering cannot be relied upon to detect undesired alterations in military integrated circuits."

After Deng Xiaopeng took Chairman Mao Zedong to the shopping mall, Wall Street analysts proclaimed that China's Maoists were different from Stalin's Bolsheviks, and that Coca-Cola would magically engender democracy within a totalitarian state. China's Maoists were supposedly different, making the economy work without dismantling state surveillance and control.

The financial tsunami that gushed out of Wall Street this fall forced the closure of over 30 Chinese factories, the ones that make the plastic Santas, socks and other such junk available at Wal-mart. But plenty more Chinese factories are churning out computers, digital chips, satellites and rockets for the high-tech universe that China has staked out as the next frontier of world war. Let's hope that the only thing “Made in China” next Christmas is a plastic Santa -- not spyware in our computers, where Big Brother, speaking Mandarin, is shifting through our cyberprofiles.

Maura Moynihan is the founding director of Friends of Moynihan Station. She lives in New York City.