Wednesday, June 29, 2011

China attacks VPNs with DNS poisoning

As the 90th Anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party looms authorities have become increasingly edgy. While Wen Jiabao has been openly talking about freedom and democracy at home the government are clamping down,

"Without freedom there is no real democracy and without the guarantee of economic and political rights there is no real freedom," Wen said in a speech in London on Monday. Speaking to an audience at the Royal Society, an institution devoted to scientific development and promotion, he acknowledged there where many issues that needed to be addressed in his country. "To be frank corruption, unfair income distribution and other ills that harm the people's interests still exist in China," he said.

"The best way to resolve these problems is to firmly advance the political structural reform and socialist democracy under the rule of law," said Wen. But China's prime minister is due to retire next year and his views are unlikely to have any real sway with the CCP and the next wave of leaders. In fact over the last few months there are signs that China is becoming far more authoritarian. 

Since calls for so-called Jasmine protests went out in February dozens if not hundreds of activists, dissidents, artists and lawyers have been rounded up, jailed, intimidated or placed under house arrest.

Censorship on the Internet increased with many new words added to the long list of banned words and phrases. No longer could China's army of microbloggers say Jasmine, Hillary Clinton, Jon Hunstman, Wangfujing, Egypt, revolution or protest. After someone threw an egg and shoes at the founder of the Great Firewall Fang Binxing even his name became 'harmonised', a euphemism used to describe Chinese censorship. The artist Ai Weiwei's name was also banned soon after his arrest though bloggers began to use the character for "love the future" which look similar. Those too began to be censored. News of these events has mostly been covered up. When a disgruntled resident in Fuzhou took it upon himself to target three government buildings with car bombs in May, Chinese media virtually ignored the incident though a few reports remain online [News QQ].

There has been restrictions on tourists too. Tibet has been closed off to all foreigners until September, and though there has not been any official announcement many tourist agencies have cancelled bookings.

On the streets of Beijing the Chengguan have been out in force. The City Urban Administrative and Law Enforcement Bureau [城市管理行政执法局] or ChéngShì Guǎnlǐ XíngZhèng Zhífǎ jú, is in charge with the enforcement of urban management of the city. This includes local bylaws, city appearance bylaws, environment, sanitation, work safety, pollution control and health. Street vendors are usually ignored by the Chengguan but over the last month they have taken a hard line on traders.

As Beijing swelters in 30 degree humidity many back streets fill out in the evenings with traders selling food and drink. Locals have sat at tables outside restaurants chewing on Rou Chuan [meat skewers] while swigging Tsingtao or Yanjing Beer. But in the last few weeks there has been a blitz by authorities who have moved them on. Even local fruit and vegetable stalls have disappeared.

Locals are reticent to talk to foreigners about why there were no longer tables on the streets or where the stalls had gone, but some do respond. "It's because of the anniversary," says one fruit seller who has escaped being moved on because they have a rented shop. "They might be back in a few weeks, I'm not sure."

It has certainly made the streets quieter. Once a buzzing hive of activity the area looks like a ghost town. The shops have escaped the wrath of the Chengguan. But while they once suffered from increased competition from the street traders now they are seeing even less trade as customers are going elsewhere. 

It is not just on the streets that the tightening restrictions have been applied. Television stations have, over the past few months, been told to moderate their broadcasting content. Programme restrictions have been applied to science fiction shows involving time travel and in the lead up to the anniversary of the CCP's founding, broadcasters have been issued with an edict to air more patriotic content.

Internet users have once again found themselves walled in as authorities target circumvention software. VPNs [Virtual Private Network] are often used by tech savvy Chinese, foreigners and business travellers to 'jump the firewall'. However in the past few days many services have become increasingly unusable.

One VPN provider based in the US said that China was using a method of attack known as DNS poisoning. During the National People's Congress in March this year China blocked the IP  addresses of many VPN providers amongst them 12VPN, and Companies responded to this by changing the IP addresses of websites and servers. China then blocked these new IP addresses and companies were forced to change them again. This cycle repeated a few times until the National People's Congress was over.

But now the China has chosen a different approach, that of DNS-poisoning. This means that any VPN server or website that ends with a specified address will be unreachable from China. The only way to solve this would be to change a company's domain name.  This is more troublesome than the IP blocks because it's time consuming for the company concerned and users would have to re-download and re-install the circumvention software. For many users downloading new software would be difficult since the site would be blocked. It is unlikely that China will undo the poisoning after the anniversary so eventually all China based clients will be affected, one VPN provider said.

DNS poisoning attacks are particularly worrisome and indicate a change of strategy by Chinese censors. Although the attacks are little more than disruptive at present, DNS poisoning attacks can be malicious and even dangerous. If a DNS server is poisoned, it may return an incorrect IP address, diverting traffic to another computer. This may merely send a user to another website as is described here. But it could also be used to send users to a website which would plant a virus or other malicious software [DNS cache poisoning]. The attacks also follow Chinese phishing attacks on GMail users and government disruption to Googles email and chat services.

Since all available VPNs went down this morning tvnewswatch has resorted to email postings for Twitter and Blogger. This post is only possible due to an 'email to blog' facility since Blogger itself is blocked in China.

With such continuing shenanigans China is not a safe place for business. With China blocking services that are integral to business and with no way to access them other than through a VPN, the situation is not good. Without a VPN access to Google Docs is impossible and many cloud-based services are off limits. Without access to these services it makes work difficult or even impossible. As such tvnewswatch has decided to leave China. 

Of course the situation might improve in a few weeks, but there is the constant uncertainty when using the Internet in China. This time the clampdown is blamed on the anniversary of the Communist Party's founding, but there are always anniversaries and sensitive dates. In 2009 there was high security and similar clampdowns on the 60th anniversary of the founding of the republic. There are worries every June 4th, as the world remembers the Tiananmen Massacre and China tries to forget. 

"Without freedom there is no real democracy and without the guarantee of economic and political rights there is no real freedom," Wen said this week. In China there is no freedom, thus no democracy, and it is further clarified by the fact that there is little guarantee of economic and political rights in the Middle Kingdom. An admission from the horses mouth.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Monday, June 27, 2011

Google no longer cares about your health

After 1st January 2012 Google will no longer support its Google Health service and say it will be shut down. The company say that the service "didn't catch on" and that after 2012 no further data may be added. Those who have used the service are advised to retrieve the data from its system and move it to competing services before January 1, 2013.

Google Health was an opt-in service under which users could volunteer their own medical information, such as medications and allergies, to a web-based storage system for reference by medical professionals. It was especially useful to travellers who might wish to create an online storage of data which could be accessed anywhere.

Google said their original goal was to create a service that would give people access to their personal health and wellness information. "We wanted to translate our successful consumer-centered approach from other domains to healthcare and have a real impact on the day-to-day health experiences of millions of our users," they say in a blog post.

"Now, with a few years of experience, we've observed that Google Health is not having the broad impact that we hoped it would. There has been adoption among certain groups of users like tech-savvy patients and their caregivers, and more recently fitness and wellness enthusiasts. But we haven't found a way to translate that limited usage into widespread adoption in the daily health routines of millions of people. That's why we've made the difficult decision to discontinue the Google Health service." After January 1st, 2013 any data that remains in Google Health will be permanently deleted [Telegraph]. 

Ease of access

The service was a perfect way of storing records with ease of access around the world. When on international travel it was especially useful since one did not have to carry valuable documents on one's person. The service served as a reminder to prompt users to take booster shots for immunisations and to keep track of developing health situations. For carers and families it was particularly invaluable. During a worst case scenario, the data on Google Health could also be accessed by a person's GP in order to evaluate recent changes that might have occurred abroad.

Of course people could have used other services such as Microsoft's Health Vault. But like many others with a Google account, access to Google Health was far more practical given it was linked with everything else Google provides.

Limited use

Google's blog post says the take up was not as great as anticipated and that "it didn't catch on." Furthermore they say its limited use failed to give them enough data by which to broaden its use and appeal. For relatively healthy individuals its use would be limited, but it nonetheless provided a safe and reliable vault of secure health data.

It appears that the real decisive factor is that Google has failed to see a way of making Google Health financially viable. The fact that data on Google Health could not be used in the same way as GMail data to provide relevant advertising was seen as a pitfall by many on its launch. In fact it was likely that Google Health would never be able to make money unless it was charged for.

Cloud storage concerns

There are two major concerns that the shutting down of Google Health raises. Firstly it raises a moral issue that seems to fly in the face of Google's 'do no evil' policy. While one can understand that Google, like any company, cannot afford to run services at a loss, the running of Google Health is surely not a significant cost to a company as large as Google. In fact it might be better for public relations to keep the service running as a 'loss leader'.

More importantly perhaps is the uncertainty that the shutting down of the service raises. Many Google account users have vast quantities of data stored with the company. For a company that promotes cloud storage there is the concern over how safe and reliable that storage is. Though perhaps unlikely at present the shutting down of Google Calendar, Google Docs, Picasa and other cloud based storage would create untold problems for millions. Recently Google Video support was dropped, and it was only after protests that Google responded by providing a "migrate to YouTube" tool. YouTube is great, though Google Video allowed for the uploading of far longer videos.

It is not the first time Google has ended support for services or shut them down altogether. Before Google Video's closure was announced the company had said its much publicised Google Wave service would come to an end less than a year after its launch.

There are also examples where changes to products have been made which have resulted in poorer performance. After Googlepages was migrated to Google Sites the formatting on some people's websites changed. In addition the way one could edit and change the site became more complicated and omitted certain functions that were previously available.

Google has launched dozens of products over the years of which GMail is probably the most successful after its search engine. Users of Blogger, Calendar, Finance, Picasa Web, Analytics, Bookmarks, Checkout, Docs, Groups, Talk, YouTube, Books, and Sites might feel safe now but this week's decision by Google should raise some alarm bells as to how permanent and safe one's cloud storage is.

Not only is one at the mercy of hackers and online glitches that result in data loss, one is also at the mercy of companies, large and small who deem it prudent to delete your information. In 2009 Yahoo killed off GeoCities which closed after 15 years of offering people the ability to set up their own website. That data has been lost forever.

Last week it was announced that Google had signed an agreement with the British Library to digitise millions of books stored in its archive and make them available online [BBC / Telegraph]. But as such data is treated so arbitrarily when it does not become profitable it raises the question as to whether a hard copy in the form of a book is more permanent.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Friday, June 24, 2011

Ai Weiwei released but China remains a terror state

In what appeared to be a moment of contrition the renowned artist Ai Weiwei was released by Beijing authorities this week. But his freedom brings little comfort to those calling for greater democracy and freedom in China. And far from being a sign of contrition or mercy, Ai Weiwei's release seems to be only an attempt to avert unwanted attention.

Held captive for exactly 80 days, Ai Weiwei's arrest held up a spotlight on China and its failure to observe basic human rights. While authorities insisted the artist was detained in connection to "economic crimes" his incarceration was seen by outsiders as little more than retribution against someone who had become outspoken about China's leadership. Indeed his arrest came after many others had been 'disappeared' following online calls for Arab style protests seen across the Middle East over the last few months.

Authorities in China began to round up dozens of artists, lawyers and dissidents in the wake of calls for a Jasmine Revolution in late February. News was stifled, foreign journalists and photographers were beaten and Internet censorship tightened as authorities targeted software which circumvented the Great Firewall of China. Even Google's GMail service was continually interrupted with many people complaining they could not access the service.

Human rights groups hailed Ai Weiwei's release on Thursday morning as a victory but also pointed out that many other people remained behind bars or under house arrest.

Ai's release "is an important reminder that pressure works," said Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, of the international campaign to free the activist artist. "But there is no indication that the government is taking a softer line towards criticism."

Indeed the artist himself was less outspoken as he was greeted by reporters outside his home. He said only that he could not comment as he was on bail and asked for understanding by the media. "I am out on bail for one year, that is all I can say," the artist told reporters.

Catherine Baber, Amnesty International's Asia Pacific deputy director, said that pressure was still being applied. "Ai is physically free but clearly muzzled, and that's not anyone's idea of freedom," she said. In fact as part of his bail terms Ai cannot move from Beijing, use Twitter or give media interviews [Reuters].

China's state media said the artist was released only by virtue of the fact he "confessed" to tax evasion and that he would endeavour to pay back money he owed. A short piece published on Xinhua said the artists was also released because of his suffering a chronic illness [Independent / Guardian / Irish Times / TelegraphBBC].

One of many arrests

Ai Weiwei's arrest on 3rd April in Beijing was the highest-profile arrest, but he was not the only person to feel the iron grip of state control. Ran Yunfei (冉云飞), a well known Chinese writer and a high-profile democracy activist and blogger, was arrested in late March shortly after the start of the 2011 Chinese protests. He was formally arrested for inciting subversion of state power in China and remains imprisoned in the Dujiangyan Detention Center.

Other arrests followed and at least 35 leading Chinese activists have now been arrested or detained by authorities including a leading Sichuan human rights activist Chen Wei (陈卫),Tiananmen Square protest student leader, Ding Mao (丁矛) and Teng Biao (滕彪) of the OCI.

Renee Xia, the international director of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, speaking shortly after the first arrests, said the situation in China was worsening. "The numbers point to a bad situation that is only getting worse. In the matter of a few days, we have seen more cases of prominent lawyers subjected to prolonged disappearances, more criminal charges that may carry lengthy prison sentences for activists, more home raids, and a heavier reliance on extralegal measures," Xia said.

Aside of those in jail, up to 200 people are believed to be subject to reinforced supervision or house arrest. And since the 19 February protest announcement, more than a hundred people have been summoned or questioned by police.

Broken promises

This is a far cry from the stated aims and ambitions of China's leaders themselves. After securing their right to hold the Olympic games in 2008 China promised to open up and to relax media and Internet restrictions.

Even before China's bid to hold the games was granted there were doubts raised. Human rights concerns expressed by Amnesty International and politicians in both Europe and the United States were considered by the delegates, according to IOC Executive Director François Carrard. However Carrard and others suggested that the selection might lead to improvements in human rights in China. What has been seen in the three years since is a deterioration of human rights and a further tightening of restrictions on free speech and the media.

As part of an agreement with the IOC, China said it would allow special areas where protests might be allowed during the Olympic games. Liu Shaowu announced on 23rd July that the Public Security Bureau would issue permits for protesting in protest zones during the Olympics. The three designated locations were Purple Bamboo Park, Temple of the Sun, and Beijing World Park. However it was later reported that of 77 applications, 74 were withdrawn, two suspended and one vetoed. In fact some of those who applied for permits even went missing or were detained.

China pledged in its Olympic bid that it would allow open media access during the games, many groups said it failed to do so. While some estimated 20,000 journalists had been assured unfettered Internet access by the IOC's Jacques Rogge, Sun Weide (孙伟德) of the Beijing Organizing Committee announced in late July that China would allow only "convenient" access – still blocking sites which reference controversial content. The IOC and broadcasters were uncertain as to whether the Beijing authorities would allow them to broadcast live from locations such as Tiananmen Square, fearing protests. In 2001, Beijing had announced there would be complete freedom for the media to report in China. But after lengthy discussions, broadcasters were only permitted to broadcast between the hours of 6-10 am and 9-11 pm with prior permission and live interviews were banned at all times.

After the games had closed, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China (FCCC) issued a statement noting that there was "welcome progress in terms of accessibility and the number of press conferences within the Olympic facilities". However, the FCCC said it was "alarmed at the use of violence, intimidation and harassment outside". The club confirmed more than 30 cases of reporting interference since 25th July that year, and said it was checking "at least 20 other reported incidents".

It was not only journalists who met with the full force of China's state police. According to an article published in Business Week, at least 50 Beijing human-rights activists were either arrested, put under house arrest, or banished from the capital during the Games. In January 2008, AIDS and human rights activist Hu Jia, who was already under house arrest, was taken into custody on 27th December 2007 for "inciting subversion". Hu had criticised China's hosting of the Olympics by comparing it to Nazi Germany's hosting of the Berlin Olympics in 1936.

Hu pleaded not guilty on charges of "inciting subversion of state power" at his trial in March 2008 but was sentenced to 3.5 years in jail on April 3rd.

Terror state

In 2008 British Conservative MEP Edward McMillan-Scott appeared on the BBC programme Newsnight and described China as a 'terror state'. An outspoken critic of China's human rights record he has lobbied the UN on the torture and lack of religious freedom in China. He has also criticised Chinese officials directly though his words so often fall on deaf ears [YouTube].

Writing in the Guardian soon after Ai Weiwei's arrest, McMillan-Scott questioned whether the EU should cut of dialogue with China.

China has been a "strategic partner" of the EU since the mid-90s. He talks of his watchword being "not just business as usual, but also politics as usual". In the 14 years of the dialogue's existence China has yielded no tangible results and it provides a fig leaf for the most arbitrary, brutal and murderous regime in world history, McMillan-Scott asserts.

The UN human rights council supposed to be a reformed process. Just as Libya was recently suspended, by any normal standards China too should be expelled, he argues.

This Sunday Hu Jia is set to be released after three and a half years in prison. It is not a victory however, only a stark reminder that those who speak out against the state in China do so at great risk [Globe & Mail].

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Heavy rain brings flash floods to Beijing

Heavy rain hit Beijing, China, late Thursday afternoon causing localised flooding and widespread traffic congestion well into the rush hour. Many subways were closed and roads were impassable in places with reports of some vehicles being completely submerged.

Commuters struggled through water which was knew deep in many places and police had to help stranded motorists push their cars out of flooded streets. Some 300 flights were also delayed at Beijing's International airport local media reported.

While parts of the south China have experienced severe flooding in recent weeks it is relatively unusual for the capital to see such heavy downpours and flooding.

Torrential rain across southern and eastern Chinese provinces has killed more than 100 people, triggered the evacuation of half a million and left large areas of farmland devastated [Further reports: Xinhua / China Daily / China DailyChina.orgReuters / MSNBC / CRI / BeijingDaze].

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Google Music deserves Beta label

While one cannot complain too much given Google Music Beta is 'free', there are a few teething troubles and annoyances with Google's new offering.

Google Music is by invite only, and to the lucky few, which may run into millions, the service is a cloud based music archive, a facility to store 'all' you music and stream it back to you. Actually it may not be all your music for two reasons. Firstly, Google only offer enough space for some 20,000 files, so those with larger collections will have a few issues as to what to leave out. The next pitfall affecting quite a number of users is the files it will accept. Most have mp3 file which is not an issue, it also accepts AAC, Windows Media Audio (WMA) and the lossless FLAC format. But it does not allow users to upload WAV files or those containing DRM, or Digital Right Management. Few people use WAV these days, though there are a number of such items in my collection. DRM maybe an issue for some however. If users have built up a legitimately purchased collection of files with DRM attached, they are out of the game. This is perhaps not Google's fault, as it wants to run a legal storage service and accepting such files might breach laws in certain states and countries.

Issues pertaining to copyright infringement has been the main stumbling block for Google in releasing its new service. No major record label has been willing to partner with it so clicking on the menu to search for songs by an artist open a browser to Google's shopping page rather than a custom application. In the US, a fair use policy exists whereby legitimately bought music may be stored by the owner on a number of devices such as MP3 players or even burned to CD for personal use. But in some regions such as Britain there exists a grey area in law. As such Google have made Google Music available only to those within the United States. And of course music stored in Google Music cannot be shared.

Being offered to those in the US hasn't stopped people elsewhere from getting access to Google Music. Some, while on a trip to the US, have applied for an invitation, while others have used a US based VPN or proxy.

After receiving an invite users must first sign an agreement and download Music Manager. It is not that heavy, though some may find that until all their songs are uploaded their Internet may be a little sluggish. Dependent on the kind of connection available it might take days or weeks to complete the upload of 20,000 songs.

But the slow uploading is not the only issue. Some songs fail to upload altogether and only an error message is logged in the Music Manager with no obvious way to resolve the problem such as to try again. Another problem many people have encountered is skipped files due to the fact Google says there is "no music in file". Again there is no further explanation nor directions to resolve.

I have only a dozen or so skipped tracks comprising a few DRM files, some it claims have 'no music in file' and two that failed to upload. Others have been less lucky.

ZDNet's Ed Bott found that after 19 hours of operation, only 1,654 tracks had been uploaded. "At that pace, it would take nearly two weeks of round-the-clock uploading to get my entire collection into Google's cloud servers," Bott exclaimed. But he was even more exasperated at the staggering number of errors he saw for this collection. "Why were 21,300 tracks skipped?"

Again no apparent explanation. A trawl of the Internet brought up some solutions with some users suggesting that changing the ID3 tags in the mp3 files may solve the 'no music in file' issue. One user writing on a Google help forum said the program Media Monkey helped him get round the problem, though his instructions were not that clear.

Sifting through the few files Google claims had no music content, some did indeed consist of only a few bytes and had probably failed to rip or download properly. But there were others which were most definitely intact, leaving one somewhat bewildered.

Having a rather slow connection at my current location the uploading is rather painful. After nearly three days it had only managed some 1,500 songs from a collection of 6,000, but it should be worth it given all the hype.

What Google promises is the ability to listen to your music anywhere you have an Internet connection. Even with a 1 or 2 Mb broadband it does manage to stream well. Over WiFi on the Android App it also work excellently. One can make playlists which also sync between devices. However there is no obvious way to retrieve your music from the cloud. So for now at least it would be unwise to throw away your hard copies.

As a Beta release, there were bound to be some issues. The few missing songs is perhaps not the end of the world, but a slight irritation nonetheless.

Google Music Beta will surely get better over time, and with competition from Apple's iTunes and offerings from Microsoft and Amazon it has its work cut out. But it's a good start overall [CNET / Mashable].

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Friday, June 17, 2011

Google voice search arrives on PCs

Since the launch of Chrome 11 Beta the Internet giant Google promised greater interactivity with computer users with the addition of built in speech to text support. It has taken a few months to be incorporated into something more functional than a third party test page, but now Google has a search function which allows users to speak directly to their computers.

So far voice search is only available at and not all users have access to is as yet, though the company says it will be rolled out to everybody soon.

The technical advance is a step forward, though speech recognition is far from perfect. Just as Scotty in Sar Trek's the Voyage Home had trouble conversing with a 20th century computer, so too will many users today. A search for "weather Beijing" was an instant success, but Google's voice recognition still has trouble with some words. An attempt to ask for "Zbigniew Brzezinski" failed several times, bringing up "sydney restaurants", "tobacconist" and "city news Brisbane"! Of course that's a hard test and one's pronunciation may also be a factor. Still for relatively simple searches, the voice search function works well. "Time in new york" was quickly understood and returned the correct result and mathematical searches are also reasonably good. Translate also worked satisfactorily. By saying "translate tuna fish into Chinese", Google quickly responded with the correct answer.

Searching for a flight information worked fairly well though it was best to say "Flight British Airways three eight" rather than "Flight B A three eight", since it had trouble with individual letters.

But there is the question of how useful this might be. In a quiet room, it will be quite useful on occasion. But in an office environment there are obviously issues. Aside of disturbing colleagues, who may also think you've gone slightly loopy as you start to talk to you laptop, there is the factor of extraneous noise.

For most people this is likely to be a novelty or an occasionally used tool. It is doubtful that it will be as much used as the mobile version. On a mobile device the advantage of speech to text is the avoidance of using a tiny keyboard. On a laptop or desktop, some people are as quick to type as to talk. This is not quite up to Star Trek, but Google has once again pushed the boundaries of innovation. To use Google Voice Search one needs to use the Google Chrome browser [BBC / CNET / ZDNet / Google Voice Search]

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Is China sliding towards mass unrest?

In the last few days reports began to emerge of riots on the streets in China. It is not unusual to see unrest in many parts of the world and even China has seen disturbances. But the scale of these latest mass protests has Chinese leaders worried.

The latest clashes began on Friday 10th June after a fracas between security officers and a pregnant street vendor in Xintang, Guangdong province. The anger of the incident swelled, bringing thousands onto the streets. Rioters burned police and fire vehicles, looted stores and fought with police who responded with firing volleys of tear gas into the crowds. Despite dozens of arrests, the disturbances continued over three days [Guardian].

The riots in the Zencheng county were not isolated however. Last week hundreds of migrant workers clashed with police in Chaozhou, also in Guangdong, following a dispute over unpaid wages. In Lichuan, Hubei, as many as 2,000 protesters attacked government headquarters last Thursday after a local politician who had complained about official corruption died in police custody.

In Fuzhou last month, the frustrations of one man's constant battle with authorities over perceived maltreatment and corruption prompted him to target three government buildings in a coordinated series of bomb blasts [ / Miami Herald].

Controlling the news

China has attempted to control the news of these incidents. State media barely mentioned the bomb blasts in Fuzhou with only a small acknowledgement on Xinhua's Chinese language site. Even small shows of dissent have been erased from history. After a student threw an egg and his shoes at the Fang Binxing, the man dubbed the inventor of China's so-called Great Firewall which censors the Internet, news outlets were told to remove content. Fang Binxing's name was also censored on China's largest micro-blogging portal Sina Weibo. The latest incidents have also made few headlines in China itself. Searching for reports of the trouble in Zengcheng, in Chinese or English, on Xinhua brings up no results, while using Xinhua's new search engine Panguso brings up only a select few articles. One article on ifeng refers to the spreading of false rumours which stirred up anger. The article says rumours had spread claiming the pregnant women's husband had been beaten to death. These "rumours and false information" had been spread "through the micro-blogs, QQ groups and forums," the article states. Meanwhile several people have been arrested for disseminating such information.

Distrust in official media

While it is possible, and even likely, that information circulating on micro-blogs and other platforms is spurious, it is a symptom of China's highly controlled information conduit. There is a growing distrust of China's official news platforms, whether it is the state broadcaster China Central Television or the state news agency Xinhua. Even supposedly independent news media is strictly controlled. If articles deemed to be controversial manage to pass by the censors they are expunged and deleted later. Such a controlled news environment leaves a vacuum where information does not exist about certain events. In such a vacuum it is perhaps unsurprising that rumours become exaggerated and spread like wildfire on the Internet.

Earlier this year a lack of information concerning the threat of radioactive iodine in the sea, coming from Japan's stricken Fukushima nuclear plant, resulted in Internet rumours spreading which suggested people stock up on table-salt. In many parts of China salt stocks ran dry as panic buying set in. Some had bought enough salt to last them years. By saturating the body with iodine the body is a little more protected from radio-active iodine since it cannot be stored and passes through the body. But ordinary table-salt would have offered little protection since it contains little if any iodine.

Even aside the rumours and disinformation, there is are many issues which directly affect many Chinese. There is a growing rich poor divide and rising inflation is something many people are feeling.

Rising inflation

This week it was announced that China's consumer price index, the official measure of inflation, had reached its highest level for nearly three years. The National Statistics bureau said on Tuesday that consumer prices in May rose 5.5% over a year earlier, driven by an 11.7% jump in food costs [al Jazeera].

The world's second-largest economy is "still facing significant inflationary pressures" and must implement measures to contain prices, Sheng Laiyun, national bureau of statistics spokesman, said. The inflation for last month was up from April's 5.3% rate and exceeded March's 32-month high of 5.4%.

The figures will make grim reading for China's politicians. Upbeat speeches are unlikely to placate a population which is finding it increasingly difficult to put food on the table and to make ends meet.

In the streets of Beijing, poverty is less obvious. The streets are lined with modern residential blocks and modern cars fill the ever crowded roads. The beggars have been pushed to the outskirts, out of sight from the tourists and the hutongs are gradually being bulldozed away to clear the path for modern buildings.

But visit provincial towns and villages across China and the poverty is far more stark. In Henan's ancient capital of Luoyang there are few shiny office blocks. Residential buildings are old and dilapidated and the beggars are a common sight. The scenes inside the main railway station bore a striking resemblance to a refugee camp rather than a transport hub. Everywhere there were poorly clothed individuals, huddled in blankets, sleeping in any available space and surrounded by a few meagre possessions. These are part of the army of China's migrant workers who take the comparatively cheap train rides to the big cities in the hope of earning more money.

Low wages

Wages are extremely low in many parts of China, and across all sectors. A waitress in a Beijing restaurant may earn only 800 RMB per month, a little over $120. Even those working at China's top news agency Xinhua can only hope to earn around 4,000 RMB per month or $620. On the face of things it would appear many are well off. There are new cars on the streets and mobile phone use is on the up. But many are living on borrowed credit. The housing market is a bubble waiting to burst and many property owners may soon find themselves suffering from the Western disease of negative equity.

In such a climate of economic uncertainty it is unsurprising that social disorder is not far away. The straw that breaks the camels back can be a relatively minor affair, but they are becoming more commonplace. On Tuesday the town of Taizhou in Zhejiang province was the latest to see trouble. Disturbances occurred after the head of a local village government confronted petrol station staff during talks over land compensation fees that the station's owner was due to pay villagers, according to reports.

Within hours of the confrontation hundreds of fellow residents of Rishanfen village had surrounded the petrol station, blocked an adjacent airport expressway, and seized a man who had allegedly struck the village leader, according to the owner of a nearby factory, who witnessed the events. Riot police soon broke up the crowds, but it is a scene repeated across the country [Guardian].

Last week, residents of Lichuan, in the central province of Hubei, laid siege to government offices following the death in custody of a local city council member. A number of local government officials were fired or placed under investigation over the death in an attempt to assuage public anger.


In late February and early march authorities took action to stop Internet calls for a so-called Jasmine revolution. After a small gathering of curious onlookers gathered in Beijing's Wangfujing on the first week, the following Sunday saw heavy handed policing with foreign media arrested or assaulted and the area around the shopping precinct cleared of people.

Meanwhile hundreds of dissidents, political activists, artists and lawyers have been rounded up. Internet controls have also tightened. Many words were censored on China micro-blogging sites including Jasmine, revolution, Hillary Clinton, Ambassador Huntsman and artist Ai Weiwei. Even circumvention software has been targeted with popular VPNs being hit.

Ethnic tensions

It is not just social problems that are creating worries among the Chinese leadership. This year China will celebrate 90 years since the founding of the ruling Communist Party and has already marked the 60th anniversary of what it calls the "Peaceful Liberation of Tibet". [China DailyIncorporation of Tibet into the People's Republic of China / Seventeen Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet].

In a move seen as an attempt by Beijing to prevent any potential unrest, or reporting of such events in the region, China has closed off Tibet to all foreign tourists until the end of July [BBC].

Ethnic tensions have risen in Hohhot in Inner Mongolia after two ethnic Mongolians were killed in separate incidents. A large protest was seen two weeks ago but news from the region is difficult to obtain since the Internet has been cut off and other forms of communications are restricted [BBC].

Last year tvnewswatch met with a Mongolian who was highly critical of China on a number of issues. He was scathing on several points, particularly human rights and corruption. "China will collapse one day," he said, "There is too much corruption amongst officials." [tvnewswatch].

In fact corruption is far more rife than most might believe. This week a report emerged which showed that corruption had drained over £124 billion from China over a 15 year period [FT]. The report had been mistakenly uploaded to the Internet indicates the widespread problems of bribes, back-handers and free-lunches being taken by officials and administrators [Australian].

Safety scandals

There are other issues which stir emotions too. The infamous milk scandal raised temperatures amongst parents who lost their children to contaminated milk products. There was further anger when hundreds of children died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake after they were buried under the rubble of substandard constructed schools. Product safety is a big issue in China, but is often swept under the carpet. In one of the latest controversies is the lead poisoning of hundreds of children. US-based rights group Human Rights Watch claim Chinese authorities are covering up the extent of the problem and say that hundreds of thousands of children are exposed to high levels of lead daily [al Jazeera]. 

China says it is taking action, but already there are signs that citizens are far from being placated with such promises. In Zhanwang village near to Yangxunqiao in Zhejiang Province in east China, discontent is taking the form of strikes as employees refuse to work at the local tin foil factory. "We've all refused to go to work since June 5th," says one Sichuanese worker. "If we keep working here, we will die here." [FT]

State media have reported the high levels of lead but fail to raise the issues of growing discontent [Xinhua / China Daily]. Some residents have even been rounded up as they sought medical treatment. Authorities detained some 50 people on a bus believing they were attempting to organise a protest. While most were released police have detained two of them for the six months since on the charge of "disrupting traffic" [Guardian].

Running scared

Such actions will do little to soften rising tensions in a country one a few turns away from widespread revolt. Some have described the scenes of rioting over the weekend in Zencheng as "scary" [AFP]. Indeed, riots are hardly a pleasant affair. For China's leaders, they may be running scared as Hillary Clinton suggested only a month ago [tvnewswatch].

Pictures emerging from last weeken's violence [MSNBC] may become increasingly common if ethnic tensions, economic divisions and health & safety issues are not properly addressed, and soon.

There have been accusations by some residents that some violence was encouraged by agent provocateurs and that plain clothed officers helped set fire to cars [Epoch Times]. Such actions would, if true, increase the justification for bringing in armed police and military controls. As temperatures rise amongst the Chinese population, there will be little need of provoking action, the citizens will be angry enough.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

al-Qaeda still a threat after Zawahiri promotion

Ayman al-Zawahiri the man most commonly referred to as al Qaeda's number two has taken the helm of the terrorist organisation. Since 1998, al-Zawahiri had been Osama bin Laden's personal physician and one of his closest confidants, but following the death of bin Laden there have been few indications as to who might take on his role.

Although al-Zawahiri was a clear choice some have suggested he is not best suited for the position and his leadership role may create ripples with al-Qaeda itself.

An unnamed US official said that al-Zawahiri had "nowhere near" bin Laden's credentials and that "his ascension to the top leadership spot will likely generate criticism if not alienation and dissension with al-Qaeda."

Al-Zawahiri certainly lacks the charisma and oratory of Osama bin Laden, but al-Qaeda with its new number one still poses a risk. In a video eulogy al-Zawahiri threatens to pursue Osama bin Laden's jihad against the West. "We will pursue the jihad until we expel the invaders from Muslim lands," he was quoted as saying in a video titled "The Noble Knight Dismounted".

The response from US officials has been one of condemnation and a reiteration to continue to battle al-Qaeda and their affiliates. "As we did both seek to capture and kill - and succeed in killing - bin Laden, we certainly will do the same thing with Zawahiri," Washington's top military officer Admiral Mike Mullen said. In fact the FBI has already placed a $25 million reward on al-Zawahiri's head [BBC / CNN / Sky Newsal Jazeera / France 24 / RTXinhua / Press TV].

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Friday, June 03, 2011

Low Emission Zone will hit motorists hard

"I don't believe it!" as Victor Meldrew might say. This will be the reaction of many vehicle owners in London as they receive letters from Transport for London. For anyone owning larger van, minibuses and 4x4 vehicles, the letter will come as a sledgehammer blow since it effectively forces owners to spend thousands of pounds before new policies take effect in January 2012.

It shouldn't be a surprise to any motorist driving in Britain that they are not the friend of the government and environmentalist. Over the past few years schemes have been introduced on the premise of reducing congestion and pollution. But while some policies have certainly improved traffic conditions and reduced pollution, other schemes have been highly criticized for being little more than a tax on the ever suffering motorist. The soon to be expanded Low Emission Zone is likely to hit many motorists who live in London extremely hard.

Bus lanes & speed restrictions

Bus lanes have been introduced across many cities in Britain. And they have certainly improved the flow of public transport, even if lines of regular motorists sit in even longer lines of stationary traffic. Reduction of speed limits on some A roads and motorways has arguably helped traffic flow during peak hours, even if a 50 mph limit seems rather pointless as darkness falls and the number of cars on the road dwindles. There are variable speed limits applied top some sections of motorway which is meant to solve this issue however.

Breaking these speed limits will often result in a hefty fine, brought about by snapping offending motorists with cameras. These were once just static cameras. The well known GATSO is posted all over Britain ready to flash the speeding car passing its sights. But locals soon avoided this 'hazard' and would slow down on approach, only to accelerate away soon after. Many might also avoid fines simply because the cameras ran out of film. With the introduction of digital cameras and SPECS, an average speed camera system, there is little escape. Motorists are now kept in line and travel at the posted limit.

Congestion Charge

Under the banner of environmentalism several schemes have been introduced in large cities. The Congestion Charge in London was said not only to reduce traffic but also pollution. In many ways it has little reduced either. Those who need to travel into the city have little choice than to find the daily fee which has increased to £10 per day. For businesses, the costs are merely passed on to consumers. Firms may pay the extra fees to their employees, just as parking might also be covered. Buses and taxis would continue to travel the streets. The situation remained the same, though local government was making a tidy profit from the influx of daily commuters. But the pushing of the environmental cause has not stopped with the Congestion Zone. 

Low Emission Zone

In 2008 the Greater London Authority, under the leadership of Ken Livingstone, introduced the Low Emission Zone. Signs began to appear at the edges of London's boroughs near to the borders with the home counties. For most motorists they were just a meaningless addition to the plethora of street signs that clutter Britain's roads.

The Low Emission Zone scheme was intended to removed highly polluting vehicles from within London. Initially it only affected bigger commercial vehicles, lorries and large vans for example. But as the 2012 Olympics approaches rules are tightening and more vehicles are being included in the list.

While there was some opposition during the consultative phase, it is only now that loud voices of protest are being raised. The scheme was opposed during the consultation phase by a range of stake holders. The Freight Transport Association proposed an alternative scheme, reliant on a replacement cycle of vehicles, with lorries over 8 years old being liable, with higher years for other vehicles. They also stated that the standards were different than the forthcoming Euro 5 requirements as well suggesting the scheme did not do anything to help reduce CO2 emissions. The Road Haulage Association opposed the scheme, stating the costs to hauliers and benefits to the environment did not justify its introduction.

Schools and St. John Ambulance expressed concern about the additional costs that the scheme would bring them, particularly in light of the restricted budgets they operate under. There were some who welcomed the proposals, amongst them the British Lung Foundation and the British Heart Foundation who saw the scheme as a way of reducing pollution.

Death sentence for some

In the past few weeks many motorists have received letters which for many is a death sentence to their life on the road. Transport for London [TfL] has sent details of how the LEZ will be expanded to include motorhomes, 4 wheel-drive vehicles and transit vans. Those with older diesel vehicles will be forced to modify their vehicle, buy a newer vehicle or face fines of £100 per day.

Many motorists are understandably irate. The cost of modification would in many cases exceed the value of the vehicle, yet replacement would not be convenient or appropriate. To replace an old Landrover or Daihatsu Fourtrak with newer equivalent may run into thousands of pounds.

Despite their age such vehicles can often run for many years, so to scrap them is far from green. A Daihatsu Foutrak bought second-hand in 2003 for £4,000 is worth very little now, yet even with 120,000 miles on the clock it could easily run another 80,000!

Of course there have been repairs and replacements. Springs have been changed, after much off-road wear and tear, and there has been some body welding. It's never failed an MoT and starts first time, even after being jacked-up and moth-balled while working abroad for 12 months.

As any owner would tell you, this vehicle could "tow a house and not notice", actually a bit of an exaggeration, but an indication of its prowess in the 4x4 market. If running well it is hardly a vehicle one would wish to dispose of. But if you own this or any number of similar vehicles, and you live in one of London's boroughs, there is a difficult choice ahead.

No cheap option

One could move beyond London's boundaries, and make the choice of never entering the metropolis again. That for many would be a little drastic however. There is the option of finding a friend who is willing to allow it to be parked outside their address, given they live outside the LEZ. But failing that, there is only the choice of selling up and buying a replacement or modifying your old vehicle.

All options are far from cheap. Next year's tax, insurance, MoT and sundry motoring costs [excluding fuel] might have been around £700 to £1,000. The introduction of this new policy may add between two and six thousand pounds to this. While there are a few complaints on web forums, particularly from Landrover owners living just within the borders, there has yet to be any major backlash concerning the new rules.

There are no other LEZs in the UK, but they are common elsewhere with around 50 in the rest of Europe. This seems to be a scheme which is likely to widen as environmental causes are used to squeeze the motorists' wallet. [TfL / Low Emission Zone map - PDF / Low Emission Zones in Europe]

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Thursday, June 02, 2011

China targets Gmail users with phishing attack

Google has announced that hackers inside China have compromised personal e-mail accounts of hundreds of top US officials, military personnel and journalists with carefully targeted phishing attacks [BBC / Telegraph / Daily Mail / Guardian / Bloomberg /].  

The news of the breaches comes after news emerged that the Pentagon were to implement a new policy concerning cyberattacks and the possible retaliative action the US might take [tvnewswatch].

Google said its own security was not breached but said the phishing attack had gleaned some individuals' passwords. In Washington, the White House said it was investigating the reports but did not believe official US government e-mail accounts had been breached. Chinese political activists around the world and officials in other Asian countries, particularly South Korea, were also targeted.

"Google detected and has disrupted this campaign to take users' passwords and monitor their emails. We have notified victims and secured their accounts. In addition, we have notified relevant government authorities," the company said in a blog post

Google declined to say who was behind the attack, nor how they traced the source of the attacks to Jinan in Shandong province, China.

Spear phishing

The e-mail scam used a "spear phishing" in which specific e-mail users are duped into divulging their login credentials to a web page that resembles the original one.

Those targeted in the latest attack received emails apparently from friends or colleagues which directed them to pages asking for their Gmail password. While some details on the fake pages were different, many were subtle and may well have been missed by Gmail users.

Google only made the news public yesterday, but in another blog posted in February by Contagio details were published detailing sophisticated "spear phishing" attacks targeting Gmail users.

Those initiating the attacks might create rules to forward all incoming mail to another account. The third party account ID may be made to closely resemble the victims ID. The hacker may just simply access the account to read mail and gather information about close associates, family and friends, especially frequent correspondents.

Such information is useful for many things, particularly in constructing spoof email in order to launch further phishing attacks [Forbes].


By simply reading a victim's email, many may not realise they have been hacked. However Gmail does have several security features some of which people should enable.

Google says users should implement 2 step verification in which Gmail users are sent a one time only code to a mobile device every time they log in to their account. Users should use https, secure, wherever possible and use a strong password. Google set this by default but some users have reverted to http in settings since https can be slower on some connections. Google have also implemented other security features which might alert people to suspicious behaviour.

Last year, soon after Google's spat with China over hacking attacks, the company introduced features to warn users of suspicious activity within their account. Gmail users may be given a warning if the company detects accessing of accounts from two different geographic regions within a short amount of time [googleonlinesecurity / gmail blog].

'Act of war'

The latest attacks raise many questions. The fact that the victims were people with access to sensitive, even secret information, raises the possibility that this was cyber espionage, not cyber crime. But it is unclear whether it will be seen as an 'act of war'.

Speaking on CNN recently, former General Wesley Clark confirmed the Pentagon was soon to release a new policy to warn off potential hackers. Clark said the policy was firstly one of deterrence, but added such attacks "could be met by force".

"When they come after our national security and it's not just a matter of data collection but as a matter of interfering and critical national infrastructure -- then, yes, it has to be viewed as an attack, and it is best to enunciate that up front so that there is no misunderstanding," Clark said.

While the 'spear phishing' attack constitutes a data mining exercise, the repercussions are nonetheless concerning.

The deliberate attacks undermine US interests, politically and economically. This attack could affect the development of cloud based services as people see them as vulnerable. Google has already seen a drop in its share value. Its stocks dropped from around $530 to $525.60 in the day's trading, though the company has seen a decline of its stock value since January amounting to a 12% fall.

China denials

Many cyberattacks in recent years have been unofficially traced to China, with heavy suspicion falling on the PLA. China has persistently denied any involvement in such attacks, claiming that it is the target of attacks itself. Following announcement of hacks on Lockheed Martin a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington refuted any link to China. "I'd say it's just irresponsible to arbitrarily link China to such cyber hacking activities in each and every turn," Wang Baodong said in an email to Reuters. "As a victim itself, China is firmly against hacking activities and strongly for international cooperation on this front".

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Responses to a growing cyberwar

On Tuesday it emerged that Lockheed Martin, the defence contractor, had suffered a massive cyberattack. While the company insisted no sensitive data had been compromised, the incident has rattled governments and security firms around the globe. 

The attack comes on the back of other high profile attacks. Sony's reputation has suffered in recent weeks after its online gaming platform exposed users to fraud [BBC]. And PBS, the US television network, has also been the target of hacks [NYT].

Such attacks have brought several responses. Firms have increased their security, while governments have talked of responding with counter-attacks and even cutting themselves off from the Internet altogether.


The United States and Britain are about to up the anti with talk of possible retaliation. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) in Britain says it will recruit hundreds of cyber experts to shore up UK defences as part of a £650 million fund set aside by the government for dealing with cyber security.

"Our forces depend on computer networks, both in the UK and in operations around the world. But our adversaries present an advance and rapidly developing threat to these networks," said the MoD in a statement.

"Future conflict will see cyber operations conducted in parallel with more conventional actions the sea, land and air operations," it added [BBC]. 

Lockheed attacked

The "significant and tenacious attack" on the Pentagon's biggest IT and arms supplier has heightened concerns in military circles. China has generally emerged as a prime suspect when it comes to such attacks on US interests, although the Pentagon says more than 100 foreign intelligence groups have been trying to pierce their networks. Investigators also say they may never know who the culprits were [BBC / Reuters / Inquirer / Telegraph].     

Lockheed eventually admitted the breach following a report by Reuters. The report revealed that hackers had struck not only Lockheed, but that the attackers had learned how to copy the security keys with data stolen from RSA security division during a sophisticated attack that EMC disclosed in March.

Rising security concerns

RSA, the Security Division of EMC, provides Secure Data, Compliance, SIM, SEM, Consumer Identity, and Access solutions to over 90% of the Fortune 500. What is concerning is that the the attackers appear to have managed to break into the SecurID keys which are widely used in helping increase security for computer log-ins.

SecurIDs are electronic keys that work by applying a two-pronged approach to confirming the identity of the person trying to access a computer system. They are designed to thwart hackers who might use key-logging viruses to capture passwords by constantly generating new passwords to enter the system. Some financial institutions use the system in order to add a second layer of security for on-line banking.

The SecurID generates new strings of digits on a minute-by-minute basis that the user must enter along with a secret PIN (personal identification number) before they can access the network. If the user fails to enter the string before it expires, then access is denied.

The breaches raise serious concerns according to Australian IBRS security analyst James Turner. Speaking to SMH he said the hack threw up serious issues for Australian government organisations and companies.

"Smart attackers want to leave zero evidence of their attack, and this includes publicity," Turner said. "But these attacks have been accompanied by the equivalent of a klaxon and neon signs, and yet the attacker hasn't stopped."

This seemed to show either "ignorance, arrogance, or desperation" by the hackers, but given the targets of the attacks, the timing, the planning required and the outcomes, Turner said he would "rule out" ignorance.

Lockheed Martin not only supply the US, but also many of its allies such as the Australian Defence Force. The implications for the Australian Defence Force and institutions using SecurID systems is particularly significant, Turner says. The fact the hackers persevered with their attack despite setting off alarms was concerning "because someone that doesn't care if they are detected is immensely dangerous" Turner said.

Attacks growing

This year has seen a growth in cyberattacks analysts say. "2011 has really lit up the boards in terms of data breaches," says Josh Shaul, chief technology officer at Application Security, a New York-based company that is one of the largest database security software makers. "The list of targets just grows and grows."

The latest attack is likely to encourage rival defence contractors in the US like Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, General Dynamics and Boeing to take additional steps to safeguard their systems. "I guarantee you every major defence contractor is on double alert ... watching what's going on and making sure they're not the next to fall victim," Shaul said.

But within military circles, some want to go further.  A report in the Wall Street Journal suggests that an upcoming strategy may open the door for physical retaliation.

Military options

"If you shut down our power grid, maybe we will put a missile down one of your smokestacks," one military source told the WSJ. And the Pentagon said Tuesday that it would consider all options if the United States were hit by a cyberattack as it develops the first military guidelines for the age of Internet warfare.

President Barack Obama's administration has been formalizing rules on cyberspace amid growing concern about the reach of hackers. Om May 16 the White House unveiled an international strategy on cybersecurity which said the United States "will respond to hostile acts in cyberspace as we would to any other threat to our country."

"We reserve the right to use all necessary means -- diplomatic, informational, military, and economic -- as appropriate and consistent with applicable international law, in order to defend our nation, our allies, our partners and our interests," the strategy said.

And Pentagon spokesman Colonel Dave Lapan said Tuesday that the White House policy did not rule out a military response to a cyber-attack. "A response to a cyber incident or attack on the US would not necessarily be a cyber response," Lapan told reporters. "All appropriate options would be on the table if we were attacked, be it cyber."

Lapan said that the Pentagon was drawing up an accompanying cyber defence strategy which would be complete in two to three weeks. The Wall Street Journal said the Pentagon would likely decide whether to respond militarily to cyberattacks based on the notion of "equivalence", whether the attack was comparable in damage to a conventional military strike.

Deterrent to hackers

Such decisions would be dependent on identifying the source of the attack, which is notoriously difficult. But the threat of retaliation may stop some attacks. Wesley Clark, the retired US general who led NATO's campaign in Kosovo, said the announcement of guidelines for cyberconflict would serve as a deterrent to those who would consider such an attack.

"It may be that the best response is not to use force, but what this policy will say is that an attack is an attack and could be met by force. It is a matter first of deterrence," Clark told CNN.

While China, Russia and Iran are often cited as being the source of cyberattacks, they have persistently denied they are responsible. China dismisses such accusations and says it too has been the victim of hacking. Iran was the subject of a much publicised attack on its nuclear facilities last year which it blamed on the United States and Israel. The Stuxnet worm reportedly wreaked havoc on computers in the Islamic republic's controversial nuclear program.

Severing the Internet

In a controversial move that may affect business and free speech, Iran has even proposed cutting itself off from the Internet altogether [WSJ / ITProPortal].  

Reports have also emerged in the local press that Iran also intends to roll out its own computer operating system in the coming months to replace Microsoft's Windows. The development is attributed to Reza Taghipour, Iran's communication minister. Iran's national Internet will be "a genuinely halal network, aimed at Muslims on an ethical and moral level," Ali Aghamohammadi, Iran's head of economic affairs, said recently according to a state-run news service. Officials say the new system would be up and running by 2013.

Iranian government officials say they are adopting the changes to counter the "invasion" of Western ideas that could damage Islamic moral values. However, it is clear that security, both domestically and militarily, is behind the move. Some observers suggest the severing of links to the Internet would have a drastic effect on business. However it is likely that banks, ministries and large companies would be allowed special dispensation.

Internet restrictions may widen

Iran is not the only country which restricts the Internet. China's Internet has often been jokingly referred to as an Intranet due to the severe restrictions. While banking is usually unimpeded in China, access to many foreign websites is often difficult or impossible without specialist software. News websites and social networking sites are particularly targeted, but even communication portals are affected. Over the past few years there have been blocks on email services even if temporary. Gmail, Google's email service, has been severely disrupted over recent weeks, with users in China finding access either slow or impossible. And in the past few days some Skype users have talked about difficulty using the service in China.

With new regulations applied by China's Internet regulators last year, it has been widely perceived that China was creating a 'white list' of Internet sites. All websites wanting to operating in China were required to apply for an operating licence, those failing to do so would effectively be blocked. The wording in the document did not make it clear how foreign based websites would be affected, but there was speculation that access to outside sites might become more difficult.

In 2009 China Internet Network Information Center, known as CNNIC, a semi-official office that administers China's domain names, said it was to tighten the rules of Chinese domain-name registrations. New registrants of domain-names with China's ".cn" suffix are required to show proof they are a government-registered business or organization. It effectively makes it harder for individuals to set up domestic Web sites.

At the time the Beijing News gave a deeper insight to the new restrictions and how they might affect websites based outside of China. The 22nd December 2009 edition reported on the full notice released by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), which was framed as a campaign against the proliferation of pornography on mobile devices.

The MIIT notice listed five measures for domain name management. The first measure suggests that a blacklist be drawn up "to prevent the owners of domain names found to be in violation from applying for additional domain names." The second calls for a tightening of the registration procedures "to ensure that all application documents are accurate." The third point is the most concerning however. It says that "Unregistered domain names will not be resolved."

"It will be regrettable if law-abiding overseas websites, part of the world-linking Internet, are inaccessible because they have not filed with MIIT," the paper said [WSJ / Shanghaiist / Globalvoicesonline / Danwei].

VOIP under threat

Recently China ruled that VOIP services such as Skype were operating illegally and could be blocked [Telegraph]. While that decision was made in December of last year, it remains unclear if China will follow through and block the popular Internet telephone service. In China such decisions are usually balanced around business and social stability issues.

For democracies the issue surrounding the cyber threat is one of national security and financial concerns. In countries where there are increasing calls for greater freedom, there are other worries, that of maintaining the status quo. As protests sweep across the Middle East, countries like Iran and China are already clamping down on dissent. Stopping the spread of information through the Internet may quell any rising disquiet, but it can also have an effect on commerce. Cutting off the Internet may stop both protests and even cyberattacks, but the economy will also be seriously disrupted. Leaders and institutions have difficult decisions to make as they walk the technological tightrope.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China