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CCTV News reports on the Post''s exclusive interview with ex-CIA operative Edward Snowden, who is in hiding in Hong Kong. Photo: SCMP

Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs sets up cyberdiplomacy office

The mainland's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has set up an office to deal with diplomatic activities involving cybersecurity, a spokeswoman announced yesterday.

That comes in the wake of revelations by whistle-blower Edward Snowden that the US has been hacking into computer networks in Hong Kong and on the mainland for years.

The new cyberaffairs office is the first of its kind on the mainland. The Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said the mainland had been "a major victim" of cyberattacks and that the country opposed "cyberattacks in all forms". She said Beijing would discuss cybersecurity issues with the United States at next month's China-US strategic and security dialogue.

Mainland security experts said yesterday that Snowden's revelations about Washington's global cyberspying programme would speed up Beijing's drive to replace all foreign-made parts in its internet infrastructure with domestic products.

For years, security experts have warned the central government that relying on foreign telecoms equipment - such as core router chips and software - would make China's network vulnerable.

Experts said Snowden's claims this week vindicated their view and would help boost Beijing's determination to phase out foreign products.

Professor Xu Ke , deputy director of the Institute of Computer Networks at Tsinghua University, which houses one of the mainland's six major internet "backbones", said it had been an ongoing concern. "It's a consensus [among us] that these foreign chips must have a 'back door' inserted inside them," said Xu.

A back door in a chip is like a key that allows those with access to tap into a system without alerting the host.

Beijing has been gradually replacing foreign parts with domestic ones made by Huawei and ZTE in recent years, another security expert said. But the mainland's core chip technology is still at least two years behind that of the US, he added.

Snowden said the US security services target network backbones to gain access to communications between hundreds of thousands of computers. He cited the Chinese University of Hong Kong as one example. Chinese University is home to the hub that carries Hong Kong's internet traffic.

The mainland's biggest internet backbone is Chinanet, run by China Telecom, with more than 175 million users. It has data processing centres across the country. China Unicom and China Mobile also operate their own network backbones. The China International Economy and Trade Net is run by the Ministry of Commerce for e-commerce. To protect "sensitive business data", its international bandwidth has been limited to 2Mbps.

Among the mainland's non-commercial network backbones, the China Education and Research Network is owned by the Ministry of Education, but operated and maintained by Tsinghua University and other top colleges. The China Science Technology Network is run by the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The number of network backbones is not known as Beijing keeps several large, shadowy networks disconnected from the global net. The China Golden Bridge Network, for instance, was built by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology for government users and financial institutions. The military also runs several networks.

A senior technology official from the central government who refused to be named said the mainland had been "under frequent attack from the US for years". He said China's cybersecurity and surveillance was the responsibility of the military.

Xu said most data passing through the network backbones were not encrypted. Attacks on network backbones were mostly carried out by governments because individual hackers "could gain little", as the amount of information they faced would be "colossal".

Only governments or large organisations would have the resources and manpower to "find the needle in a haystack", he said.

Tang Wei , a senior network security engineer at Rising, a mainland virus protection firm, said the central government was more open to foreign telecoms equipment than Washington.

Tang said the US had banned the use of products made by Chinese firms such as Huawei due to security concerns. Beijing, on the other hand, had imposed no such restriction on US products.

"If foreign equipment can provide good service at a reasonable price, they will buy foreign brands without hesitation," he said. "Few people would think or care about security."


This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Beijing sets up cyberdiplomacy office