Before changes to the criminal law took effect on February 28, prosecutors in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, were struggling to charge computer hacker Long Er with a crime. Long responded to an advertisement last year in a hackers' chat room posted by unemployed Sichuan high school graduate Wang Ye, who was looking for someone to write software for 2,000 yuan (HK$2,270) a month to help him break into websites and steal money. Long turned out to be highly productive, generating more than one program for Wang each week, which allowed the latter to hack into more than 40 major gaming websites and steal more than 3 million yuan. One of the hacking programs, called Daxiaojie, turned out to be very powerful and quickly became popular on the mainland. A week after the amendment to the criminal law was introduced, Long was arrested with Wang for aiding hacking. Although many in the internet security industry have hailed the new legislation as a stand against hacking to counter the rise in attacks on government websites, business servers and private computers in recent years, others defend hacking as noble, even an act of patriotism. The law changes make any involvement in any unauthorised attempt to break into any computer system a crime. In the past, only the unauthorised infiltration of computers relating to state affairs, national defence or scientific research was a criminal offence. The maximum jail term was increased from three years to seven. The amendment extended legal protection from state-owned computers to 'any computer on Earth', according to a hacker. 'Systems in education, medicine and business are often easy prey,' he said. 'Hacking into your neighbour's computer is also a lot of fun. Now I may even risk going to jail.' Another major departure from the past is the extension of protection from information stored on a computer to any confidential information passed around on the internet. As a result, the hacker said, it was no longer legal to intercept online bank account information, instant messenger chatter, e-mails and gaming rankings. But probably the biggest blow to expert hackers was that nobody would be allowed to produce, provide or sell hacking software, he said. 'Many entry-level hackers, as well as some experienced ones, buy programs written by experts to empower their attack; some simply post an ad in chat rooms to hire people to crack a certain kind of system,' he said. 'It wasn't a crime [before]. How would I know if someone used the knife that I sharpened to commit murder? But the new law says 'no'. I will be as guilty as the murderer. It's absurd, in my opinion. 'The government seems to be serious. One comrade has already become a scapegoat. Nobody wants to be the next one.' The crackdown has spread. Authorities in Beijing, Hubei, Jiangsu, Jiangxi and Heilongjiang put a number of non-government hackers on trial. On March 10, the Wuhan Intermediate People's Court sentenced two hackers who infiltrated Sohu.com and stole virtual credits valued at more than 700,000 yuan. One was given 12 years in jail for various offences and the other 10 years, the toughest punishment ever handed out to mainland hackers. Although mainland IT security experts welcomed the prospect of more order in cyberspace, they also expressed concern that the rigid regulations would drain the pool of talent severely if China should ever need hackers. They said non-government hackers would need to be hired to target overseas systems if a war broke out because they were often more creative and destructive than formally trained professionals. Non-government hackers have been hailed, from the Chinese perspective, as patriotic. Whenever a diplomatic row surfaced, such as the Nato bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 and Japan's sovereignty claims over the Diaoyu Islands, hundreds of thousands of them teamed up to paralyse the targeted country's government website. Nankai University's information security expert, Jia Chunfu, said it was time to update the law to maintain order in mainland cyberspace. But he said such severe punishment could cost the mainland its edge in the field. 'Non-government hackers can easily become defenders of the national network,' Professor Jia said. 'Hacking is different from programming. Good hackers are often amateurs who have the freedom to attempt something unusual by themselves. They need a free environment.'