Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Was China behind COP15 email leaks?

The British government's former chief scientist has said foreign spies had probably been behind email hacking at the Climate Research Unit in East Anglia. While not pointing a finger at any specific government Sir David King said the leaking of the unit's emails going back 13 years bore all the hallmarks of a skilled intelligence operation from a foreign government rather than opportunist hackers. It was the "sophistication of the operation" that prompted Sir David to come to his conclusion [Daily Mail].

More than 1,000 emails and 2,000 documents were stolen from a back-up server used by the University of East Anglia since 1996. The release of the data was carefully timed to destabilise the Copenhagen climate change summit. While climate change sceptics had something to gain, it is countries which might be forced to change their energy policy that would benefit most if the COP15 talks failed.

One such country is China which was widely criticised for its unwillingness to commit fully to a binding agreement. Given the intransigence of China and the failure to make any real commitment, it would not be surprising if the PRC were behind these attacks. While publicly supporting climate change policy, China clearly wants to do very little, claiming it is still a developing nation. Recent revelations concerning the hacking of Google, and at least 30 other western companies, seems to add weight to this theory. 

Of course Sir David has been careful to avoid naming the country he might think are behind the hacks. He will only say that it was carried out by a team of skilled professionals, either on behalf of a foreign government or at the behest of anti-climate change lobbyists in the United States. Of course There are western corporations that would have much to gain from failed climate change talks, oil companies for example. 

But China is rapidly being seen as the source of viruses and hacking attempts. Last week Hillary Clinton issued a warning to China and Russia to tighten up their Internet security amid a growing threat of international cyber-crime. "We cannot afford in today's interconnected world to have too many instances ... where companies' accounts can be hacked into," she said. The speech came after Google threatened to end its operations in China following what it described as a "sophisticated and targeted" cyber-attack on Google, Adobe and up to 30 other US companies.

More recently Britain's security service MI5 accused China of setting up so-called "honeytraps" with a view to obtaining sensitive commercial secrets from top UK companies. According to The Sunday Times, promotional gifts handed out at business trade shows included cameras and memory sticks have allegedly been found to contain bugs that provide the Chinese with remote access to users' computers [Independent].

It may never be known who perpetrated the hacks into the Climate Change Research Unit. Some of the information revealed would be embarrassing to the US and China as well as other scientists around the world. The Guardian reports that data collected by Chinese and American scientists had been falsified. However while the release of such information could be embarrassing to governments, the main effect of discrediting climate change lobbies had been effected. 

Two days after the attempted hack, the compendium file of stolen emails appeared on a server used by a company called Tomcity operating from the Russian city of Tomsk in Siberia. However, again, the uploading could have been done by anyone, skilfully controlling a proxy server elsewhere in the world. Experts have suggested that loading the email compendium file onto a Tomsk computer server may have been a deliberate attempt to lay a trail to the door of the Russian intelligence service, which has since denied any involvement in the hacking incident.

Some expert analysts in Russia have said that China had more to gain from destabilising the Copenhagen conference than Russia. China has the world's fastest rising carbon emission rates and had an obvious motive for ensuring that no binding agreement or treaty emerged from Copenhagen. However, it cannot be ruled out that powerful oil interests in the West, above all in the United States, had as much an interest, as did Beijing, in seeing Copenhagen fail [Mi2G].

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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