Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor who blew the whistle on secret US surveillance programs like PRISM, has provided details on United States government hacking and cyber-spying to a newspaper in Hong Kong.
The South China Morning Post, which previously interviewed Snowden, was shown information that Snowden said indicated the US government had hacked into “Chinese mobile firms to steal millions of text messages.”
He also showed the newspaper that Tsinhua University, which the Post describes as the “mainland’s top education and research institute,” was the “target of extensive hacking by US spies this year.”
“It is not known how many times the prestigious university has been attacked by the NSA but details shown to the Post by Snowden reveal that one of the most recent breaches was this January,” according to reporting by the newspaper.
The attacks were “intensive and concerted efforts.” In January, on just one day, “at least 63 computers and servers in Tsinghua University” were hacked by the NSA.
Snowden claimed he could confirm this because, according to to the Post, “specific details of external and internal internet protocol addresses could only have been obtained by hacking or with physical access to the computers.”
As described, the university is where “one of the mainland’s six major backbone networks, the China Education and Research Network (CERNET), is located. It is the country’s “first internet backbone network.
It is operated by the university and other colleges but owned by the Ministry of Education, and Snowden said it was given attention by the NSA because it was a “network back-bone,” which meant there would be so much data passing through.
Pacnet-owned computers in Hong Kong were also attacked by the NSA, according to Snowden. The newspaper was shown a “range of details including dates, domain names, internet protocol numbers and operational details” that indicated attacks had taken place.
The global headquarters for Pacnet is in Hong Kong and Singapore. The company “owns more than 36,800 kilometres of fiber-optic submarine cables and provides connections to 16 data centers for telecom companies, multinationals and governments across the Asia Pacific.”
According to the newspaper, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has setup “an office to deal with diplomatic activities involving cyber security.” This office is the “first of its kind on the mainland.”
The US State Department soundly condemned China for cyber attacks directed against the United States. On February 19, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said, “We consider this kind of activity a threat not only to our national security but also to our economic interests.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein has also condemned the Chinese military for its efforts to infiltrate US companies and government agencies. She stated the same day, “Multiple American sources have raised the issue of cyber attacks with Chinese interlocutors—all to no avail. In fact, there has been complete denial among the Chinese that this is occurring. I have personally raised cyber attacks with Chinese officials as recently as last week. Again, complete denial.” [Both statements were in response to a New York Times report.]
Cyber attacks from China have rarely been discussed in the context of the fact that there is an ongoing cyber war between China and the United States. The US government (just like the Chinese government in these Post stories) has presented itself as the victim. But Snowden’s disclosures make clear that this is not the case.
Yesterday, it became known after a sealed complaint leaked that Snowden had been charged with committing two violations of the Espionage Act. This made him the eighth person to be charged under the 1917 law after leaking information.
He also was charged with theft of government property.
Latest reports indicate that Snowden is in a “safe place” in Hong Kong. He is “under the protection of police” but “has not been detained.”
The United States government is seeking his extradition, but, in order for him to be surrendered, Hong Kong must be able to determine that the theft and Espionage Act charges he is faced with are also offenses under the city’s law.
The Fugitives Offenders Ordinance (FOO) and the Fugitive Offenders (United States of America) Order are the relevant agreements the Hong Kong government will consult when deciding how to proceed.
If the agreement is followed, Snowden will not be surrendered “if it appears that the offense is of a political character.” He also will not be surrendered if the “purpose of prosecuting or punishing him” appears to be for his “political opinions” or if he “might be prejudiced at his trial or punished, detained or restricted in his personal liberty by reason of his political opinions.”