Name a target anywhere in China, an official at a state-owned company boasted recently, and his crack staff will break into that person’s computer, download the contents of the hard drive, record the keystrokes and monitor cellphone communications too.
Pitches like that, from a salesman for Nanjing Xhunter Software, were not uncommon at a crowded trade show this month that brought together Chinese law enforcement officials and entrepreneurs eager to win government contracts for police equipment and services.
“We can physically locate anyone who spreads a rumor on the Internet,” said the salesman, whose company’s services include monitoring online conversations and pinpointing who has been saying what about whom.
The culture of hacking in China is not confined to top-secret military compounds where hackers carry out orders to pilfer data from foreign governments and corporations. Hacking thrives across official, corporate and criminal worlds.
Whether it is used to break into private networks, track online dissent back to its source or steal trade secrets, hacking is openly discussed and even promoted at trade shows, inside university classrooms and on Internet forums.
The Chinese Ministry of Education and a number of universities, for instance, join companies in sponsoring hacking competitions that are attended by army talent scouts, although “the standards can be mediocre,” said a cybersecurity expert who works for a government institute and handed out awards at a 2010 competition.
Corporations employ freelance hackers to spy on competitors. In an interview, a former hacker confirmed recent official news reports that one of China’s largest makers of construction equipment had committed cyberespionage against a rival.
One force behind the spread of hacking is the government’s insistence on maintaining surveillance over anyone deemed suspicious. So local police departments contract with companies like Xhunter to monitor and suppress dissent, insiders say.
Dissident artist Ai Weiwei (艾未未) said he received three messages from Google around 2009 saying his e-mail account had been compromised, an increasingly common occurrence in China among people deemed subversive. When the police detained him in 2011, he said, they seized 200 pieces of computer equipment and other electronic hardware.
“They’re so interested in computers,” Ai said. “Every time anyone is arrested or checked, the first thing they grab is the computer.”
There is criminal hacking, too. Keyboard jockeys break into online gaming programs and credit card databases to collect personal information. As in other countries, the Chinese police have expressed growing concern.
Some hackers see crime as more lucrative than legitimate work, but opportunities for skilled hackers to earn generous salaries abound, given the growing number of cybersecurity companies providing network defense services to the government, state-owned enterprises and private firms.
“I have personally provided services to the People’s Liberation Army [PLA], the Ministry of Public Security and the Ministry of State Security,” said a prominent former hacker who used the alias “V8 Brother” for this interview because he feared scrutiny by foreign governments.
He said he had done the work as a contractor and described it as defensive in nature, but declined to give details.