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Leaks depict hacking by a China threatened by Internet

Cyberattacks on US targets widespread

By James Glanz and John Markoff
New York Times / December 5, 2010

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NEW YORK — As China ratcheted up the pressure on Google to censor its Internet searches last year, the American Embassy sent a secret cable to Washington detailing why top Chinese leaders had become so obsessed with the Internet search company: They were Googling themselves.

The May 18, 2009, cable, titled “Google China Paying Price for Resisting Censorship,’’ quoted a well-placed source as saying that Li Changchun, a member of China’s top ruling body, the Politburo Standing Committee, and the country’s senior propaganda official, was taken aback to discover that he could conduct Chinese-language searches on Google’s main international website. When Li typed his name into the search engine, he found “results critical of him.’’

That cable from American 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 United States.

Extensive Chinese hacking operations, including one leveled at Google Inc., are a central theme in the cables. The operations began earlier and were aimed at a wider array of American government and military data than generally known, including attacks on computers of American diplomats preparing positions on a climate change treaty.

One cable, dated early this year, quoted a Chinese person with family connections to the elite as saying that Li himself directed an attack on Google’s servers in the United States, though that claim has been called into question. The person cited in the cable said that Li personally led a campaign against Google’s operations in China but that to his knowledge had no role in the hacking attack.

The demands on Google went well beyond removing material on subjects like the Dalai Lama or the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. 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 Chinese government or military facilities, the cables show. An American diplomat replied that Google was a private company and that he would report the request to Washington but that he had no sense about how the American government would act.

Yet despite the hints of paranoia that appear in some cables, there are also clear signs that Chinese leaders do not consider the Internet an unstoppable force for openness and democracy, as some Americans believe.

In fact, this spring, around the time of the Google pullout, China’s State Council Information Office delivered a triumphant report to the leadership on its work to regulate traffic online, according to a crucial Chinese contact cited by the State Department in a cable in early 2010, when contacted directly by The New York Times.

The message delivered by the office, the person said, was that “in the past, a lot of officials worried that the Web could not be controlled.’’

“But through the Google incident and other increased controls and surveillance, like real-name registration, they reached a conclusion: The Web is fundamentally controllable,’’ the person said.

Meanwhile, the online payment service provider PayPal has cut off the account used by WikiLeaks to collect donations, serving another blow to the organization as it struggled to keep its website accessible after an American company stopped directing traffic to it.

PayPal said in a Friday blog posting that the move was prompted by a violation of its policy against “activities that encourage, promote, facilitate, or instruct others to engage in illegal activity.’’

A spokeswoman for PayPal Germany declined yesterday to elaborate and referred to the official blog posting.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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