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14 Jun, 2013 09:59

Snowden’s asset: NSA hacking exposer knows secrets China wants

Snowden’s asset: NSA hacking exposer knows secrets China wants

Edward Snowden could become a valuable asset for China’s cyber security experts if he is persuaded to share the knowledge of American surveillance programs. He has already given information of alleged NSA attacks on Chinese computer networks.

The former NSA contractor is now under criminal investigation in the US over the leak to the press of details of the top-secret collection of phone and web data by the American government. He is currently in Hong Kong, a Chinese territory with a large degree of autonomy, where he claimed that the US government is engaged in massive hacking attacks on Chinese computers, some of which are key part of the country’s infrastructure.

While official Beijing has so far refrained from being dragged into the scandal, voices are rising in China calling on rejecting such a request. Popular Communist Party-backed newspaper Global Times argued that the whistleblower would be of more use to China if milked for more American secrets in a Friday Op-Ed.

“The US is accumulating all the advanced powers of the Internet to forge a state-level ‘fist’ in order to launch cyber attacks on other countries. The unparalleled power of this ‘fist’ is beyond our imagination, which should be an alarm bell for us to catch up with the development of the internet,” the newspaper argued. “Our focus should be fixed on grasping the core technology of the internet industry in the future.

Global Times added that the exposure “has demonstrated the US' hypocrisy and arrogance” over the issue of cyber warfare and that China’s rising power grants its more respect from the US. And if Beijing and the government of Hong Kong do turn Snowden over to the US, they will face a public opinion backlash, the newspaper said.

The notions have their backers among the Chinese population, notes The New Yorker. One popular comment on Chinese micro blogging service Weibo says: “If Edward Snowden was Chinese and worked for the Chinese National Security Agency, Obama probably would already have had him to dinner at the White House and nominated him for the next Nobel Peace Prize.”

Some netizens called for the extraction of information from Snowden and then for sending him off to Russia or granting him a political asylum in China as a “demonstration of state power.”

Snowden’s exposure and of US surveillance practices and appearance in Hong Kong came at an inconvenient time for diplomats in Washington and Beijing. Allegations that government-backed hackers from China are engaged in numerous acts of cyber espionage to steal America’s commercial and military secrets had been a major point of confrontation recently.

The rift seemed have been at least partially closed after the meeting between Presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping last week. But the allegations that the US government has been engaged in massive surveillance over foreigners and hacked into Chinese computer networks propel the issue back into spotlight.

US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping head for their bilateral meeting at the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California, on June 7, 2013. (AFP Photo / Jewel Samad)

Sweeping backbone of Chinese internet

Earlier Snowden accused American intelligence hackers of attacking at least 61,000 targets worldwide in the last four years. Many of them were located in China and are part of important infrastructure.

“We hack network backbones – like huge internet routers, basically – that give us access to the communications of hundreds of thousands of computers without having to hack every single one,” Snowden told the English-language Hong Kong newspaper The South China Morning Post. 

Meeting with the Post journalists at an undisclosed location, Snowden handed them documents detailing the alleged hacking attacks, the newspaper reported. While the records cannot be independently verified, they include dates and IP addresses of Chinese computers, which were of NSA interest in the last four years.

US government hackers, according to the documents, successfully penetrated three targets in four. The sample provided by Snowden didn’t include any military targets in China and he said he didn’t know if attacks on those took place.

Passengers stand beside a TV screen broadcasting news of Edward Snowden, a contractor at the National Security Agency (NSA), on a train in Hong Kong June 13, 2013. (Reuters / Bobby Yip)

Among the civilian computer networks NSA hacked was Chinese University, according to Snowden. It is home to the Hong Kong Internet Exchange, a central hub of servers through which all web traffic in the city passes.

"The primary issue of public importance to Hong Kong and mainland China should be that the NSA is illegally seizing the communications of tens of millions of individuals without any individualized suspicion of wrongdoing," Snowden said. "They simply steal everything so they can search for any topics of interest."

The university said it had not detected any form of hacking of its network and that the exchange and the school's backbone network "are closely monitored round-the-clock to ensure normal operation and defend against network threats."

In addition to being a key part of Chinese internet infrastructure, the University is collaborating on a number of sensitive space-related projects.