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Anti-government hackers hijack Chinese cable TV, broadcast pro-democracy messages

Hacking cable TV
Credit: Robert Couse-Baker

Anti-communist hackers hijacked a Chinese cable television station during prime-time and broadcast anti-government messages Live Free or Die Hard style.

Hackers managed to blanket a prime-time cable TV network channel in China with anti-government messages, such as "Friends, don't co-operate with Communist devils." This was superimposed on top of a broadcast of a basketball game on August 1. Other messages and images were also delivered in a Live Free or Die Hard style.

AFP reported that the hackers broadcast anti-communist messages and images for about four hours across several different channels available through local cable broadcaster Wenzhou. The pro-democracy “slogans” denouncing the Communist party were superimposed over the regularly schedule programs.

Some of the hackers’ messages, according to Foreign Policy, declared:

"Damn the Chinese Communist Party's mouthpieces: China Central Television, Peoples' Daily" -- the first a broadcaster, the latter a newspaper, and both generally acknowledged to toe the party line -- as well as "the Propaganda Department and the State Radio and Film Administration," both agencies that exercise government censorship.”

"Free Wang Bingzhang" appeared alongside a photo of a Chinese pro-democracy activist jailed for life in 2003. "Communist bandits are the real criminals." Another message showed support for Falun Gong, a banned spiritual movement. Other images with messages showed tortured prisoners and jailed dissidents.

The Chinese government usually censors references to Tiananmen Square protests when troops with assault rifles and tanks “killed hundreds – by some estimates more than 1,000 – protesters.” But hackers broadcast images of the bloody crackdown as well as of Tank Man, a lone unknown man who bravely stood in front of the advancing row of tanks.

"A salute to people who are brave enough to strive for freedom," said one of the messages. "Do not forget June 4 (the anniversary of the Tiananmen protests). One party authoritarian rule always ends in disaster.” Another stated, "Devil Communist bandits are the common enemy of mankind. Tens of millions of ghosts who were wrongly put to death are seeking revenge."

Another message warned, "Dear audience, do not watch too much television. It is all lies and self-congratulation by these ********. Television is the accomplice of the fatuous Communist party.”

As Chinese citizens took to social media about the TV broadcast hijacking and started posting images, Sina Weibo, a Chinese-like Twitter account for the Wenzhou branch of China Cable, said, "At the moment some areas of Wenzhou city are receiving unusual broadcasts, technical staff are currently trying to solve this issue, we hope viewers will understand."

Then the local government issued a statement that "lawbreakers" had "released malicious information.” It added, "Please make a distinction between right and wrong and do not spread these pictures or statements."

Foreign Policy reported:

At 9:30 p.m., about two hours after photos of the hackers' messages began swirling online, the official Weibo account of a Wenzhou media service provider began posting instructions for how to get rid of the troubling messages. "Remove and then re-insert the smart card from your set-top box; the black text should then go away."

Censors immediately leapt to action, deleting photos of the hackers' messages and related messages. The search term "Wenzhou TV station hacked" is currently blocked on Weibo due to "relevant regulations." Initial mainland China news reports about the hacking appeared briefly online, only to be quickly pulled. Censors also deleted a Weibo post by an editor at state-owned Xinhua News Agency's international division, which described the hacking as a "fierce" attack.

Censors were busy deleting posts and scrubbing screenshots of the hack off social networks. Some Weibo accounts were also suspended. Yet anti-communist hackers tweeted a link to one blog that still has some the messages and images, such as:

anti communist hackers hijack primetime cable tv network in china tianya

Although FP credited the Anti-Communist Party Hackers with taking over the cable broadcasts, the group denied it and credited “friendly forces.”

Hacking your cable TV network: Die Hard Style was presented at Hack In The Box (HITB) in Amsterdam this year by Rahul Sasi. He explained that hijacking TV channels to broadcast fake news could create chaos resulting in riots; misinformation could crash the price of a stock, for example. Sasi showed a demo man-in-the-middle (MITM) analog attack, but also talked about security issues in digital cable TV networks. Today he gave more details about hacking cable TV networks via the “low hanging web application bugs in digital cable.”

Sashi told Politico that he wasn’t surprised by hackers taking control of TV feeds in China to stream the anti-communist slogans. Hackers could sneak in “through Internet-connected features such as middleware billing services. Those hackers could interrupt the broadcast stream of TV stations and replace it with other content. While few such hacks have been reported, Sasi told MC he expects more to come as digital cable creates more links between household TVs and the Internet and as hackers look for new ways to manipulate public knowledge.”

Some of the potential ways to attack TVs connected to the Internet were recently highlighted by Columbia University researchers. They showed how, with an initial $450 investment, hackers could launch 'invisible' and 'unstoppable' attacks on the Internet by attacking through broadcast digital television, attacks on the net through Smart TVs.

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