Was China's Politburo Behind the Google Cyber Attacks?

Fallout from the new Wikileaks dump

This article is from the archive of our partner .

Senior Chinese leadership ordered the cyber attacks on Google's computer systems earlier this year, according to new U.S. documents released by Wikileaks. As Wire readers will recall, those attacks triggered Google's decision to partially pull out of the country in March. The news comes in the form of a cable between a "Chinese contact" and the U.S. embassy in Beijing. According to the contact, the cyber attacks were ordered after a senior member of China's powerful Politburo, the governing force behind the ruling Communist Party, Googled his own name and didn't like what he saw. Among the 220 U.S. diplomatic cables released, this is one of the most sensitive documents related to China.

  • This Says a Lot About China, observes Kathrin Hille of the Financial Times: 

If the hacking attack was orchestrated because a Politburo member was unhappy with the information he found on Google about himself, it shows how power is being used in China; that there is no dividing line between the institutions of the state and the personal interests of the people in power.

  • A Politburo Orchestrated Attack Is Very Plausible, writes Gady Epstein at Forbes:
Considering that Google is based in the United States and that Beijing and Google have surely long eyed each other with suspicion, it is easy to see why not just one, but all of China’s top leaders would be unhappy with the search engine’s influence on their Web reputations... The difference between Google and [other search engines] is that Beijing can and does order Baidu and Sina to “harmonize” such search results to avoid embarrassing top officials.

...The Politburo Standing Committee have never had anything like that control over Google (even, you could argue, when the search engine was offering its censored domestic version of the service), and that must have irked them and many others in the government.

  • This Strengthens the Case That China Did It, writes Thomas Claburn at Information Week:

Security companies said as much back in January. A report issued by iDefense, a computer security company owned by Verisign, claimed that 33 other companies were targeted in the cyber attack and that those responsible were working either directly for, or on behalf of, official intelligence entities of the People's Republic of China. Such claims however have always proven problematic because finding the IP address of a computer through which an attack was conducted doesn't definitively reveal who controlled that computer or directed those responsible. And indeed, Chinese officials have repeatedly denied any involvement in the attack on Google and other companies.

  • Will Either Country Acknowledge the Leak? wonders Jose Vilches at Tech Spot:

The documents suggest the Chinese government has also broken into American government computers and those of Western allies, the Dalai Lama and American businesses since 2002. So far, there has been no official reaction from either the U.S. or Chinese government to this specific story. However, given that the documents apparently only refer to an embassy “contact” and not to any hard evidence, it will likely remain the same way.

  • We've Heard a Version of This Story Before, writes Peter Foster at The Telegraph:
It has marked similarities to an almost certainly apocryphal story involving of Jiang Mianheng, the son of the former Chinese President Jiang Zemin. The story goes that on a visit to inspect new Chinese high-speed internet equipment, an engineer typed “Jiang Zemin” into the Google search box only for it to return an entry headlined “Evil Jiang Zemin”, whereupon Jiang promptly ordered the site to be blocked.
  • We Can't Confirm This Yet, writes Barney Jopson at the Financial Times:
Unfortunately, the original cables have not been released into the public domain by the newspapers or Wikileaks itself, so it’s not possible to reconcile some of the inconsistencies in the reporting or gauge the credibility of the US’s source... The source could have been relaying a bit of idle gossip from someone who is not familiar with the matter, in which case it would not be anything to get excited about.
  • Let's Not Jump to Conclusions, writes Adam Segal at the Council on Foreign Relations:
The headline at TechCrunch is “WikiLeaked Diplomatic Cables Confirm China’s Politburo Was Behind Google Hacking Incident.” Confirm seems an overly strong word.  Certainly the method–a mix of government operatives and non state actors–is plausible.  But what about the certainty that is was the Politburo behind the attacks?  The cable cites a source who claims to know that someone in the Politburo ordered the attacks.  One source, and we have no idea who the source was, if they are in a position to know, and how seriously the embassy in Beijing took the information. All very interesting, but I would say we are a long way from confirming anything. Still, more documents are to be released, and maybe we’ll find out more.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.