'Godfather' of hackers fights for Web security
Wan Tao, dubbed the godfather of Chinese hackers by the media, founded the Chinaeagle Union - one of the largest hacker organisations on the mainland - four years ago. Now he spends his time trying to keep hackers at bay as an internet security engineer.
Q: When did you start hacking?
A: Although I studied accounting at university, I became so fascinated about computer programming in my third year that I skipped most of my classes and spent a lot of time at the computer centre, living on two apples and a glass of water a day.
I was initially interested in hacking because I knew I could easily be better than any of the computer-science students. In my fourth year, I came up with my first virus, which soon paralysed the whole computer centre. There was no internet at the time, so it was spread via floppy disks. A teacher who did not know I'd invented the virus asked me to help get rid of it, so I was able to do it quite easily.
What did you do for a living after you graduated?
I was sent to the state-owned Guangdong Railway Group, because there was no free job market for university graduates in 1993. But instead of doing their accounting, I developed financial software for the company, which they've been using ever since.
With nothing else to do, I soon became bored, but then found a job as an auditor in Guangzhou. I stayed there for two years, until 1996, when the boredom returned and then I quit. From then I was totally involved in IT [information technology], from working as a freelance programmer to being an internet security consultant, while brushing up on my hacking skills on the side. But I have my own principles and ethics, such as never bringing my hacking to work.
There have been long-standing disputes between hackers and 'honkers' in China. Whom have you sided with?
Years ago, it was OK to be a hacker, when it simply referred to someone who would break into systems. But over the past decade, the attributes of hackers have become somewhat darker.
Chinese hackers coined the word 'honker', which means someone's a patriotic hacker. Unlike our western counterparts, most of whom are individualists or anarchists, Chinese hackers tend to get more involved with politics because most of them are young, passionate and patriotic. Most of them are politically motivated as they need a way to protest against foreign matters. There's a lack of such an outlet in real Chinese society.
As a 'honker', can you specify some of the episodes you've been involved in?
In 1997, the 60th anniversary of the onset of the anti-Japanese war, I and some others hacked the e-mail system of the Japanese prime minister. In 1998, we hacked some Indonesian government and banking websites to protest against the slaughter and mass rape of Indonesian-Chinese during rioting.
In 1999, as a member of the famous hacker group Isbase, I took part in a week-long cyber-assault on American websites which was triggered by the Bush administration's sale of arms to Taiwan and the midair collision between a Chinese fighter and a US spy plane, which killed our pilot.
In 2001, after the inauguration of [Taiwanese President] Chen Shui-bian, I organised the Chinaeagle Union, and the first thing we did was hack into his official election website.
Did you recognise the destructive effect of hacking?
A principle of mine, and later of the Chinaeagle Union, is that hacking skills should never be used for destruction. That's why we only deface a target's homepage, such as putting on the Chinese national flag, instead of destroying the system - even though we could. Actually, I stopped hacking in August 2001.
According to the new constitution of the Chinaeagle Union, it's neither a hacker nor political organisation. The goal is to improve the security of Chinese networks, popularise internet-security education and advocate a virtual civilisation.