China rejects computer spy claims as "ghost of Cold War"

BEIJING (Reuters) - China Tuesday rejected a report suggesting it may be involved in using computer networks to spy on exiled Tibetans and foreign governments, accusing its authors of being possessed by “the ghost of the Cold War.”

A man uses a computer inside an Internet cafe in Shanghai January 5, 2009. REUTERS/Aly Song

China has been repeatedly accused of using the Internet to secretly enter computer networks abroad to carry out sabotage and gather intelligence, and it has repeatedly denied such claims.

A report from the Toronto-based Munk Center for International Studies in Toronto said at least 1,295 computers in 103 countries were breached by the spying, which it said was based in China but could not be definitively linked to the government.

A spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry dismissed such claims as rumor and said his government was committed to protecting Internet security.

“Nowadays the problem is that there are some people abroad avidly concocting rumors about China’s so-called Internet espionage,” spokesman Qin Gang told a regular news briefing.

“There’s a ghost abroad called the Cold War and a virus called the China threat,” Qin continued, breaking into English-language phrases to make his meaning clear.

“People possessed by the ghost of the Cold War constantly issue this China threat virus.”

Among the sites infiltrated from China were embassies, foreign ministries and government offices, especially across southeast and south Asia, and the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan exile centers, the Canadian researchers said in the report released at the weekend.

A computer located in the private office of the Dalai Lama was infected with a virus, the researchers found. It was capable of “phoning home” -- stealing information such as email lists with thousands of names and negotiating position documents -- from the machine and sending it to those in control of the virus.

The Dalai Lama told reporters in New Delhi that his office computers were being hacked into for sometime now.

“You see ... some communication between my office and our central secretariat ... seem to reach Chinese hands,” he said.

“So we asked some Internet specialist (to look into the breachings).”

The Dalai Lama said on one occasion Chinese authorities lodged a protest with India against a person’s visa application even before he had applied for it and had only communicated his wish to visit India with the Dalai Lama’s office over email.


The study was conducted by a private think tank and a research center affiliated with the international studies school at the University of Toronto.

Some of the same activist researchers were behind the OpenNet Initiative, a study of Internet filtering and censorship in more than three dozen countries that criticizes China for pervasive attempts to control political expression on the Web.

The report suggests many of the computers used to control the virus appeared to be run from Hainan, where the Chinese government operates a signals intelligence center.

But it also says it is hard to definitively prove this and that alternative explanations are possible. The whole issue of cyber-espionage is shrouded in mystery. Not just the Chinese, but the United States, Israel and Britain are known to have sophisticated electronic spy capabilities.

Whoever may be responsible, the report details a far-reaching campaign to infiltrate the computer networks of China’s critics and their allies, not just among Tibetan exile groups but also Taiwan trade organizations.

“The attempts of these people to use rumors to vilify China will never succeed,” said the Chinese spokesman Qin.

Reporting by Chris Buckley in BEIJING and Krittivas Mukherjee in NEW DELHI; Editing by John Chalmers and Jeremy Laurence