Alleged NSA snooping target is one of China's Internet hubs

BEIJING Mon Jun 24, 2013 8:59am EDT

A general view of the large former monitoring base of the U.S. intelligence organization National Security Agency (NSA) in Bad Aibling south of Munich, June 18, 2013. REUTERS/Michaela Rehle

A general view of the large former monitoring base of the U.S. intelligence organization National Security Agency (NSA) in Bad Aibling south of Munich, June 18, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Michaela Rehle

Related Topics

BEIJING (Reuters) - China's Tsinghua University, revealed by an American spy agency contractor to be a target of U.S. surveillance programs, is home to the country's oldest Internet hub and routes traffic from tens of millions of users.

The alma mater of many of China's top leaders including President Xi Jinping and former President Hu Jintao, Tsinghua's campus in northwestern Beijing hosts the China Education and Research Network (CERNET), one of China's six major backbone networks, according to state media.

"Tsinghua is known as the 'MIT of China'," said Duncan Clark, chairman of Beijing-based technology consultancy BDA, referring to the premier U.S. university, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"It has strong research and technical capabilities," Clark told Reuters in e-mailed comments. "It also produces a lot of the nation's future elite (in government and business). So it's not surprising, I guess, that it's a target."

The university did not respond to requests for comment.

But, in an interview with the Communist Party-backed Beijing Youth Daily, an unnamed official from Tsinghua's information department denied that it was the target of a U.S. cyber attack, saying that "reports that Tsinghua was hacked into are inaccurate".

On Saturday, Hong Kong's South China Morning Post newspaper said documents and statements from the contractor, Edward Snowden, indicated the NSA had hacked major Chinese telecoms companies to access text messages, attacked Tsinghua University, and hacked the Hong Kong headquarters of Pacnet, which has an extensive fiber optic submarine network.

Snowden, who is wanted by the United States government, fled Hong Kong on Sunday to Moscow. He has asked for asylum in Ecuador.

Set up in 1994, CERNET was designed to provide Internet services to China's educational institutions, according to its web site. It connects 160 cities in China and more than 2,000 of China's universities and research institutes, including Beijing's other top university, Peking University, and Shanghai's Jiaotong University.

CERNET, which is operated by China's ministry of education, says on its website that it is China's "largest non-profit computer network and hosts the world's largest national academic network".

Luo Ping, a professor of Internet security at Tsinghua, said he had warned in research papers about U.S. attacks on China's backbone networks about five to six years ago.

"Those of us who do network security have known very early on that the National Security Agency has entered the backbone networks in China," Luo said. He did not however specifically comment on Snowden's claims.

In 2007, local media reported that Tsinghua's network had sustained large-scale virus attacks in 2006 and again in 2007, affecting over 10,000 computers on campus. The university was forced to shut down many infected computers to contain the virus.

"I believe they've taken some measures, but are still relatively weak," Luo said.

China on Sunday expressed "grave concern" over Snowden's allegations that the United States has hacked into Tsinghua and Chinese mobile network companies, and said it had taken the issue up with Washington.

When asked why Tsinghua could have been targeted by the United States, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a regular briefing on Monday that she was "not in a position to answer this question".

"Ask the party who conducted the attacks," Hua said.

Both China and the United States accuse each other of cyber attacks and the issue was top of the agenda when President Barack Obama hosted Xi at their first summit earlier this month.

China later said it wanted cooperation rather than friction with the United States over cyber security.

(Additional reporting by Michael Martina and Beijing Newsroom; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see
Comments (7)
sam2sam wrote:
The depth of connections between high-tech corporate America and the NSA is not being fully revealed; we’re being lied to daily.

If you want to know what’s REALLY going and with all your personal data and what the NSA’s goal is, read this:

Jun 24, 2013 9:27am EDT  --  Report as abuse
oakpkdude wrote:
Time to revive the missle sheild in Poland. Enogh is enough with these Russins. Now they are just ebing antagonistic. Let’s show them that we are the lone superpower left and will not play by their rules.

Jun 24, 2013 9:31am EDT  --  Report as abuse
JohnManfred wrote:
I supported this guy when his disclosures were LIMITED to the wrongful spying on American citizens. But, by telling the Chinese about legitimate spying on Chinese targets, especially with all the hacking coming this way from China, he lost a lot of my sympathy. On the other hand, it is the US government’s fault. It should not have attempted to attack and extradite him. That is what led to this. It should, instead, have acknowledged the need for public debate on the wholesale data collection issue, and invited Snowden to come home by giving him immunity from prosecution.

This was not handled in a proper manner. The administration bungled dealing with the Snowden revelations completely. It refused to acknowledge that public debate is proper, given the extent of the data collection, and it managed to turned someone who could have been a hero into a traitor. Now, our national security really is seriously damaged, which it didn’t have to be, and it will probably get worse, as Snowden reveals our secrets out of a desperate need for protection against his own government.

Jun 24, 2013 10:09am EDT  --  Report as abuse
This discussion is now closed. We welcome comments on our articles for a limited period after their publication.

Track China's Leaders