Hacker union denies hit on Google

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 January, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 January, 2010, 12:00am

They are young, gifted and hack - and they want you to know they had nothing to do with the cyber-attacks that prompted Google to announce it was prepared to pull out of China.

They admit some of their brethren waged electronic warfare last week against the Iranian Cyber Army but say members act based on a sense of honour, not instructions from Beijing.

The Honker Union of China was formed after a group of computer hackers caused a stir in 2001 when they brought down thousands of US websites in response to the collision of a US spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet over the South China Sea. Since then, the group has developed into a highly organised network of more than 12,000 individuals who are at the cutting edge of the darkest arts of the information age.

Despite its size and influence, the group is shrouded in mystery. But in a rare interview, days after Google's declaration last week, a core member of the union offered a rare glimpse into the world of mainland hackers.

He and his colleagues were not involved in the attacks on Google - which the US Web search giant says were aimed at accessing the e-mail accounts of Chinese dissidents worldwide - said 'Lyon', who is based in central China and describes himself as a senior hacker.

'We have imposed very strict ethical principles on our members. This practice is not allowed, because it is immoral,' he said.

Google claimed mainland hackers backed by government agencies attacked the private accounts of users of its e-mail service, Gmail, via a computer based in Taiwan, but Lyon challenges this assertion.

'We have established close and friendly contact with hacker organisations around the world, including those in the United States. There is no real national boundary in cyberspace. Anyone can launch an attack from anywhere via any route. You can't blame a huge country like China for an infiltration attempt,' he said.

Lyon says the group represents 'a new generation of hackers' - many of them highly paid information-technology professionals. They take pride in their 'code of chivalry', under which they inform webmasters of the loopholes they have found after hacking into their systems.

Lyon is one of the Honker Union's seven core members. He won't go into too much detail, but he does sketch the profiles of four of his colleagues.

Yexin is a senior information-technology engineer who specialises in router security. opencTM is a developer of embedded applications. Chen13 is an internet security engineer. Xiaochu, a 15-year old high-school student, is widely recognised in hacker circles for his skills.

He won't say anything about the other two core members. All the names are pseudonyms, he adds.

Unlike earlier generations of Chinese hackers who often had no job, Honkers like Lyon occupy senior positions in security for IT companies and have plenty of money.

The money allows them to fund their own operations, he says, and they have no relationship with the mainland authorities.

Google says it no longer wants its Chinese-language mainland search engine, google.cn, to be bound by the government's censorship rules and that, if the government can't agree to that, it is prepared to shut the service down. It has already stopped filtering some search requests.

But censorship is a subject Lyon will not be drawn on. Like other hackers, who generally avoid upsetting the government, he distances the Honker Union from politics.

The union has helped some small government websites patch security loopholes, he says, but has never worked under a government contract or been asked to infiltrate another country's computers.

'Real Honkers are artists. We don't steal anything, we don't spy on anyone,' he says.

He says some members of the group were involved in the recent cyber dust-up with Iranian hackers, but insists none of the core members were involved.

The so-called Iranian Cyber Army hijacked the DNS server of Chinese search engine Baidu in the United States on Tuesday. Chinese hackers retaliated, putting national flags and patriotic slogans on some Iranian government websites.

Lyon does, though, admit that the Honker Union does not have absolute control over all its members, and has no way to discipline them beyond moral suasion.

'As soon as we found out some of our members were involved, we immediately released an emergency notice prohibiting any further attacks,' he said. 'Iran and China are friends. Cyberspace is very complicated. It is not easy to tell who is really behind the attack.'

Twenty years ago, computers were a luxury for the privileged few, but today the mainland boasts 384 million internet users and its hackers are known the world over.

Many steal information and business secrets for profit. Some big groups have their websites and one specialises in hacking into systems to delete negative internet postings.

But such intrusive and damaging hack attacks are anathema to the Honker Union, for whose members attacks on individuals such as rights activists are a non-starter, according to Lyon.

The name Honker literally translates as 'red visitor', or hong ke, a nationalist play on the Chinese word for hacker, hei ke, meaning 'dark visitor'.

It is led by the Red Hacker Security Team, which runs a website that provides internet security news, educational materials, free hacking software and source codes, plus a forum only open to members.

'Compared with Western countries, China's internet infrastructure has more loopholes. We hope to use our experience, knowledge and skill to create a pool of talent. Together we will build a more secure cyberspace, in which citizens and small businesses can live happily,' Lyon says.

'What we do is simple. We find a website and hack it. We usually pick small or medium-sized sites because they have the least defence.

'Once we succeed, we review each step of the attack procedure. Then we will think about what can be done to defend against it. In the end we will put all the information into a report and click 'send' to the webmaster.

'We don't do it for money. We haven't made a cent from the people we help. Our satisfaction, and motivation, comes from the many long and sincere thank-you letters from webmasters of smaller websites.'

There is no real national boundary in cyberspace. You can't blame China for an infiltration attempt

'Lyon', one of seven core members of the Honker Union of China

Quite a fraternity

The Honker Union of China has been operating since 2001

One of its seven core members says the group has a membership of: 12,000