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Mail or malware? In China, hard to tell

In China, you can never be sure whether you’ve got mail — or a computer virus — and where it’s from. Reshma Patil elaborates.

world Updated: Apr 09, 2010 01:29 IST
Reshma Patil

In China, you can never be sure whether you’ve got mail — or a computer virus — and where it’s from.

India’s diplomatic missions in China are said to receive emails that appear to be sent from an Indian ministry in New Delhi or a foreign consulate. The text and format copies the unsuspicious style of routine official correspondence.

But a click on the email or attachment releases pornography or potential malware that sneaked past the system’s anti-virus software.

This week, during bilateral talks with Premier Wen Jiabao and foreign minister Yang Jiechi, India was silent on the latest cyber espionage report from University of Toronto researchers who claimed that sensitive data was stolen from Indian government computers targeted from Chengdu, capital of China’s southwest Sichuan province.

A top diplomat later said that all issues could not be raised at once. Foreign secretary Nirupama Rao told the media that the hacking was not discussed, but India is ‘obviously concerned’.

Concerns about email privacy in China have shot up since March, and tracing the origin of cyber attacks remains technically tricky.

A week before the Toronto report — denied by China — was out, foreign journalists were cautioning each other to avoid using emails to arrange interviews and conduct ‘sensitive business’.

The latest cyber scare in Beijing was the temporary shutdown of the Foreign Correspondents Club of China (FCCC) website on April 2, after persistent denial of service attacks on the website from IP addresses in China and the US. It was later considered an ‘isolated attack by an individual or group,’ its location uncertain.

In the last week of March, three Beijing-based journalists received emails that looked like they were sent from the media office address of the Shanghai World Expo to be held from May-October. The Expo office had not sent the emails and they contained malware.

On March 31, email accounts of eight journalists in China and Taiwan were reported hacked. The FCCC warned journalists in China to be cautious while sending ‘sensitive information’ on emails, especially through Yahoo accounts.

Foreign professionals in the media and diplomatic offices in China assume that their emails and telephone calls are being screened anyway. This year, China also began screening and blocking cell phone text messages in an ostensible anti-porn campaign that will also help Beijing monitor information critical of the government.

The Toronto cyber-espionage report was blocked in Beijing.