National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden has told the South China Morning Post that the U.S. government is spying on Chinese citizens by reading their text messages, among other offenses, the paper reported June 23.
“The NSA does all kinds of things like hack Chinese cell phone companies to steal all of your SMS [Short Message Service] data,” Snowden said, according to the report. He added that NSA had targeted individuals in Hong Kong and on the mainland.
According to the SCMP, text messaging is the preferred means of communicating in mainland China.
Earlier this month, Snowden, an employee of government consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton and a former employee of the NSA and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), identified himself as the source of top-secret documents leaked to The Guardian newspaper.
In addition to hacking text messages and the phone companies, Snowden said the NSA has targeted Tsinghua University and computers at the Hong Kong headquarters of Pacnet, a company that owns an extensive network of fiber-optic submarine cables.
According to a second June 23 report from the SCMP, Tsinghua University is home to “one of the mainland’s six major backbone networks, the China Education and Research network, from where Internet data from millions of Chinese citizens could be mined.” The information Snowden leaked shows that one day in January, the NSA hacked a combination of 63 computers and servers at the University.
“China should set up a national information security review commission as soon as possible,” Fang Binxing, president of the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, and the father of China’s “great firewall,” said in response to news of the NSA’s spying, the SCMP reported.
The news has empowered the Chinese to do some U.S.-style finger pointing.
The U.S. government has warned against the use of telecom equipment from Chinese companies ZTE and Huawei in critical U.S. infrastructure. Both companies have ties to the Chinese government, and U.S. lawmakers fear that the equipment could make the U.S. vulnerable to spying, or worse.
“Any bug, beacon or backdoor put into our critical systems could allow for a catastrophic and devastating domino effect of failures throughout our networks,” U.S. Rep Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) said in an Oct. 8, 2012, report from the U.S. House Intelligence Committee.
The report called the Chinese government a “major perpetrator of cyber-espionage.”
In carriers Sprint and Softbank’s recent negotiations with the U.S. government, to get their pending merger approved, a promise to remove any network equipment from ZTE and Huawei was included as a condition.
The documents leaked by Snowden have also revealed the existence of the NSA’s Prism surveillance program, which ordered Verizon Communications to hand over logs of communications between “the United Sates and abroad” or “wholly within the United States, including telephone calls” on an on-going basis.
Sprint, AT&T, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Yahoo, among others, have since come forward to say that the government has also asked them for data on customers.
Snowden fled to Hong Kong, seeking protection from the U.S. government. Not finding it, he flew to Moscow, via help from WikiLeaks, reportedly with hopes of heading to Ecuador, which has offered him asylum.
WikiLeaks gained worldwide fame as the source to which Private Bradley Manning, who like Snowden has said he was horrified by government practices he witnessed through his job and felt compelled to act, shared government information. Manning, after years in confinement, is in the fourth week of a court martial in Maryland.
On June 22, WikiLeaks head Julian Assange, released a statement in which he accused President Obama of betraying his supporters and a generation “that grew up on the Internet.”
“By trying to crush these young whistle-blowers with espionage charges,” said Assange, “the U.S. government is taking on a generation, and that is a battle it is going to lose.”