Monday, 6 June 2011

China's computer whizz-kids prepare for war

I remember watching a film once, where the Communist Chinese drilled under the Pacific to invade the US. It came to mind again recently when I read about the various cyber attacks the Chinese are accused of launching against foreign websites: what could be more “yellow peril” than an enemy disabling you by stealth from their comfort of their padded armchairs in the luxury section of an internet cafe in Hefei?
So, I had a peek at how the Chinese are looking at their compatriots’ derring-do, and found a fair amount of pride in the achievements of China’s army of heike (heike is Chinese for “hacker” - it’s a straight transliteration of the English, but with the added bonus that the characters mean something like “black assassin”). This, for example:
Q: How powerful exactly are these Chinese heike?
A: We stick a Chinese flag on the White House website, and you can doubt how powerful we are? That stroke of brilliance might have been a flash in the pan, but whenever our country needs us we’ll be ready to attack the enemy.
Q: How do I get to be one of these Chinese heike?
A: Study English. Learn how to program. Read up on internet security.
Another exchange discussed how a well-respected heike who went under the name Lao Ying had been behind the White House Chinese flag incident, but lamented how heike will now do pointless things like attack the Chinese social networking site QQ. Real heike culture, said one poster, is about defending China - this is its most basic “moral characteristic” - you’re only a real heike if you’re doing it for the sake of China’s national dignity.
As to who they are, bloggers agree there are only a very few of them, and they’re relatively young - they range from middle-school students through to the first couple of years of university, have started with an interest in assembler language, and have then spent a lot of time studying computing. The vast majority of kids who start out with an interest find it too much of a challenge and give up, and you’re considered an old-timer if you’re the wrong side of thirty. This, though, rather assumes that the Chinese government isn’t actively orchestrating hacking of foreign targets, hothousing talent and providing them with the technical wherewithal.
Anybody who’s spent time in a Chinese internet cafe will know exactly where heike talent is fermenting - even the smallest towns and villages have a wangba on every corner, and inside each one are dozens or even hundreds of teenagers for whom computers are a way of life. Add to this a pinch of Chinese nationalism, season with a heavy dose of anti-Americanism, and even if China only creams off the top one percent of talent when it reaches high school or university we’re still talking hundreds of thousands of tech-savvy, gifted programmers eager to crash Google, stick a flag on the White House website, or hack into the US military. With MI5 and SIS recruiting and training computer talent at a higher-education level, and no comparable body of nationalistically inspired, self-taught hackers to dive into, it’s little wonder that we don’t hear official complaints from China of Western cyber attacks on Chinese websites.

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