Cyber War: China Hacks Into Twitter and Censors it Ahead of Chinese Communist Election

On Thursday in China, 2270 delegates gathered for the 18th Chinese Communist Party National Congress in Bejing’s imposing Great Hall of the People to decide the party’s next political leadership. In what can only be described as another incident of intrusive censorship, many commentators of this once-in-a-decade event reported that their Twitter accounts had been hacked while others experienced problems with their internet connection.

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.

How much do you trust the information in this article?

Rebecca McCartney

Rebecca is currently working at the Tim Parry Jonathan Ball Foundation for Peace in the UK. She specialises and focuses on foreign and security issues.

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