Well-known human rights advocates in China and a Tibetan rights activist in the United States have disclosed that their Gmail accounts have been compromised. They came forward after Google’s announcement of a sustained cyber attack on activists and other illicit accessing of accounts, but stressed that the problem goes back much further. Some in China said they had repeatedly suffered from hacking and blamed the authorities .
From The Guardian
• Authorities blamed for hacking into Gmail users
• Phishing scams and malware used as weapons
Tania Branigan in Beijing
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 14 January 2010 22.47 GMT
Well-known human rights advocates in China and a Tibetan rights activist in the United States have disclosed that their Gmail accounts have been compromised.
They came forward after Google’s announcement of a sustained cyber attack on activists and other illicit accessing of accounts, but stressed that the problem goes back much further. Some in China said they had repeatedly suffered from hacking and blamed the authorities .
Ai Weiwei, one of China’s best-known contemporary artists, said he detected problems with email accounts two months ago.
Teng Biao, a law professor and human rights lawyer, and Zeng Jinyan, activist and wife of the jailed dissident Hu Jia, both said their email had been hacked as long ago as 2007. They realised the issue had recurred when they checked their accounts in light of Google’s statement.
However, a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman, Jiang Yu, told a press conference in Beijing: “Chinese laws prohibit any form of cyber attacks including hacking.”
On Tuesday, Google said hackers had gained limited access to two accounts in December’s attack. It is understood the firm contacted the account holders.
Tenzin Seldon, 20, a US student whose parents are Tibetan exiles, said Google had checked her computer and confirmed an intrusion. “My email account was likely hacked because I am a Tibetan activist,” she said.
Google said its investigation also showed that the accounts of dozens of Gmail users in the US, China and Europe who are advocates of human rights in China had been routinely accessed by third parties. This had not happened through an intrusion into its infrastructure, but probably through phishing scams or malware placed on the users’ computers.
Ai, who helped to design the Bird’s Nest stadium for the Olympics, came under pressure from authorities after leading a volunteer attempt to list all the children who died when their schools collapsed in the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan.
“We realised two months ago that our Gmail account [for the Sichuan investigation] had been invaded by someone who was transferring our emails so whatever we got, they got,” he said. “Of course we changed the password but we later had problems again.”
Ai said he had checked the account after detecting other forms of monitoring, but was unsurprised to detect the problem because people involved in protecting rights in China had told him it was very common. Although it was impossible to know, he believed those responsible “must be the same kind of people” who recently visited his bank – government security officers.
He added: “From my experience dealing with Sichuan I started to understand very clearly the character of local government. They will do anything – they tap your phone … You will never really wrongly accuse them of anything because they do everything.”
Zeng said her account had been hacked repeatedly. “I checked it up yesterday and found all my emails have been copied to another email address which I did not know. I think it must be done by the authorities, because I am not interesting enough to attract other hackers,” she said.
Teng, who has acted in many sensitive cases and often speaks out on rights issues, said he was not surprised he had been targeted.
“In September and October 2007, my Gmail was used by others to send out emails to people with attachments containing viruses. Later, the Gmail I had used for three years was no longer accessible. I had to abandon the account and registered a new one,” he said.
“This time … I found that all my emails have been forwarded to [another] address. Of course, I have no evidence to say who did this, but I think only the government’s security department is interested in human rights lawyers.”
Another well-known activist, Yao Yao, tweeted: “My Gmail was hacked five times. I changed to a stronger password, then my emails were forwarded to an email account I had never seen.”
It is not clear how the accounts were compromised, but malware-laden emails sent to rights activists, foreign media and others in China have become increasingly sophisticated in recent years.
In October, assistants for several foreign media organisations in China were sent carefully tailored messages with attachments carrying malware.
Earlier last year researchers at the University of Toronto said they had discovered a vast electronic spy network which seemed to have targeted embassies, media groups, NGOs, international organisations, government foreign ministries and the offices of the Dalai Lama, the leader of the Tibetan exile movement.
Computers were infected when users clicked on links in emails or documents attached to them.
The team said the “GhostNet”, which had infiltrated hundreds of computers and stolen documents, was apparently controlled from computers in China. But they added that they could not identify who was behind it.