Update: This post has been updated with additional information from the Times story.
More detail is emerging today about the extent to which Chinese authorities have gone to try to censor or otherwise disrupt the ability of people to gain access to information, but, conversely, how they used hacking to discover secrets, especially about the United States. The Chinese activities, as revealed by the WikiLeaks disclosure of 250,000 documents, mostly of the State Department, are reported in today’s New York Times.
Diplomatic cables "portray China’s leadership as nearly obsessed with the threat posed by the Internet to their grip on power," The newspaper reported. The article describes the experience of Li Changchun, a member of China’s top ruling body, the Politburo Standing Committee, who discovered that when he typed his name in Chinese into Google’s main international Web site, he found “results critical of him.” That’s not supposed to happen in Mr. Li’s world.
The anecdote is contained in a 2009 cable sent from the American Embassy in China to Washington. When I wrote Nov. 28 about WikiLeaks documents describing how the Politburo “directed” activities to hack into Google Gmail accounts to spy on dissidents, one commenter cautioned that the information contained in a diplomatic memo is “based upon incomplete and partially unreliable sources” and should not be automatically accepted as fact.
Update: In fact, the Times' latest report notes that the source about the Politburo's involvement in the Google hacks said he knew of a plan to pressure Google to censor Internet sdearches, "he had no direct knowledged linking them to the hacking attack," the news paper reports
True enough, but the reports, while perhaps “incomplete" and "unreliable,” are nonetheless intriguing about how a society built on the control of information, is threatened by technology that makes information so much more easily available.
At the same time, Chinese officials used that same technology to spy. One cable released by WikiLeaks described a cyberattack in 2008 that yielded more than 50 megabytes of e-mail messages and a complete list of user names and passwords from an American government agency, the Times reported.
All in all, I’m not sure what lasting impact these WikiLeaks disclosures will have. To me, founder Julian Assange’s release of documents earlier this year about Iraq and Afghanistan only proved what Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman said in 1879 that, “War is hell.” And this latest release of diplomatic cables only reveals a common understanding of human nature that sometimes people say some things about others that they don’t say to them directly. As Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show" put it, "Unless you're going to tell us the aliens from Area 51 killed Kennedy, stop with the drama."
As to the leaks about China’s cyber activities, however, the disclosures mean China’s future denials of hacking will be harder to accept and China should be on notice that we know what they’re up to.
Robert Mullins is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. He has been writing about technology from Silicon Valley for more than a decade. He has covered such beats as network security, servers, storage, software development, telecommunications and, of course, Microsoft, for a variety of publications, most notably the IDG News Service and Network World.