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China's Wandering Eye

Eric Reeves, a professor of English Language and Literature at Smith College, who also runs, has filed this dispatch about Beijing's nefarious internet trolling.

Ominous news from cyberspace: Darfur advocacy groups in the United States--collectively without rival in shaping international efforts to halt ethnically targeted violence in western Sudan and eastern Chad--have been the target of cyber-espionage that most likely leads back to the Chinese government. Beijing is angry because it is the focus of a large and intense shaming campaign highlighting the fact that China is both host of the 2008 Olympic Games--and thus custodian of the Games's various ideals--as well as complicit in the Darfur genocide by way of its support for the brutal regime in Khartoum. What was to have been Beijing's post-Tiananmen Square coming out party is rapidly becoming a public relations nightmare. And so the Chinese government has sanctioned cyber-espionage against the advocacy organizations most responsible for this shaming campaign.

The FBI is investigating these clandestine I.T. assaults on the basis of evidence provided by the Save Darfur Coalition, the largest and perhaps most influential of the advocacy organizations. Others working on the campaign appear to have been similarly targeted (my own website was recently subject to a highly sophisticated cyber-assault traced back to Iran, a close Islamic ally of the Khartoum regime). Such attacks are not without precedent, and indeed form part of a dangerous pattern requiring much greater scrutiny and protection. In reporting on the story, The Washington Post found consensus among I.T. experts that the Save Darfur Coalition allegation "fits a near decade-old pattern of cyber-espionage and cyber-intimidation by the Chinese government against critics of its human rights practices."

What's new here is that China is not simply tracking human rights dissidents abroad, or researchers and advocates working on such highly sensitive subjects as Tibet and Taiwan, regarded by Beijing as "domestic affairs." Rather the cyber-espionage extends to advocacy organizations challenging China over its role in the broader international theater of events and responsibilities. The thinking appears to be that if an issue touches Chinese interests in a serious way, cyber-espionage is an acceptable tactic. A recent news investigation in China found persuasive evidence that hackers not directly associated with the Chinese government were committing cyber-espionage on a freelance basis, and were paid for it by Beijing later. And yet because of the difficulty in proving definitively just where an attack or penetration originates, and if the government has a hand in it, both the espionage subcontractors and the Chinese government "operate in a virtual world of deniability."

This apparent meeting of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI and the sci-fi world of The Matrix is no small concern. The intrusions that politically active U.S. citizens face today are, despite the excesses of the Patriot Act, most likely to come from abroad. And there is no legal or judicial recourse. U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies have only begun to move toward serious discussions of the problem. Actual adjudication of "off-shore" espionage would seem to be many years off, especially if one of the most egregious offenders is China. A treaty of any sort that might weaken one of China's intelligence and military advantages over the West would appear doomed.

Americans should thus expect that Chinese abuses of cyber-technology for espionage purposes, extending to the invasion and disruption of domestic political discourse, to be around for a very long time.

--Eric Reeves