China’s 18th Communist National Party Congress opened in Beijing this week at the same time Twitter accounts have been hacked and there have been reports of problems gaining internet access in the country noted for its draconian censorship and intrusive online surveillance.
The ten yearly Congress formally endorses key leadership positions and sets the country’s agenda for the decade.
The decisions on appointments , including that of president and prime minister have already been settled as have those for other high ranking position in negotiations in the lead up to the congress.
But there is little input from the average citizen. And the Government is keen that netizens only get to hear what they want them to. Not that there anything unusual in that.
Officials have denied the Government ordered or was behind the hacking or loss of internet service but it is a mighty bid coincidence.
Ezine PolicyMic reports that Twitter notified a number of users today that their accounts may have been hacked.
Early this morning, Twitter sent out e-mails to an unknown number of users warning that their accounts “may have been compromised by a website or service not associated with Twitter.” While many of these individuals are known to have been on the Chinese mainland, others outside of China are also believed to have received the message. One Twitter user reported knowing four French users that got the message. It is a very worrying international concern that “someone” is trying to control the conversation about the congress.
Affected users include Tsinghua University professor Patrick Chovanec, the China Media Project , Christina Larson, Mara Hvistendahl, OffbeatChina, amongst other journalists and analysts; all of which are notable voices within the China-related Twitter-verse.
While there is no evidence to suggest that the Chinese government in Bejing are to blame … and that this is simply not a huge coincidence … it raises serious questions about continued censorship in the country. Many analysts anticipated that China’s extensive network of internet censors, commonly known as the Great Firewall of China, was going to become more intense in the lead up to the congress, but could the government have been behind this Twitter attack?
The state has long been suspected of either permitting or outright employing nationalist hackers; indeed, the country admitted to training an elite unit of “cyber-soldiers,” called the Blue Army. Nevertheless, China has claimed that the unit is focused on self-defense and won’t initiate an attack on anyone.
This isn’t the first time that China has been caught up in a potential hacking scandal however: in 2010, Google left the Chinese market because of a cyber-attack from within China that is believed to have targeted Chinese human rights activists. In a press release at the time, Google wrote: “In mid-December, we detected a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China that resulted in the theft of intellectual property from Google. We have evidence to suggest that a primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail account of the Chinese human rights activist.”
The Chinese government denied all accusations in 2010, but many worldwide were left with doubt about China’s intentions and capabilities. Such concerns have surfaced once again in the lead up to the congress today and in the past few weeks.
In addition to the Twitter attack today, the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that internet users in China had found difficulties with their internet connection in the past few weeks. American expatriates living in China reported that access to websites — especially foreign websites and virtual private networks, which allows users to circumvent Chinese internet filters — had deteriorated.
Another unusual occurrence is the somewhat muted discussion about the congress on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter. Sina Weibo, the largest operator on the network, for example failed to run a special discussion page on the party congress despite doing so for the U.S. election. When searching the term “18th Party Congress” on Sina Weibo, only posts from state media outlets such as Xinhau and People’s Daily come up but without any comments from individual bloggers. This is yet another demonstration of China’s widespread censorship and control of the conversation.
With these other interruptions and ‘unusual’ cyber occurrence in mind, it wouldn’t be a far-fetched claim to say that Chinese authorities may have had something to do with today’s Twitter attack. The extent to which can only be speculated.
Now that a smooth handover of power has taken place, it is hoped that internet services will resume to full capacity and that Twitter accounts will remain safe … until the next political event in China.