Cyberhacking was a source of tension between Washington and Beijing even before Edward Snowden made his revelations of serial snooping by US security services. Now he details Chinese targets.
Mr Snowden is still in Hong Kong. And rather than disappearing quietly, the whistleblower has ratcheted up tensions between America and China by telling a state-run newspaper that the US has been hacking computers in China and Hong Kong for the last four years.
In another far-reaching interview with the South China Morning Post, Mr Snowden alleges that targets of US hacking in Hong Kong include the University of Hong Kong, public officials, businesses and students.
That is no small claim. The University of Hong Kong hosts the Hong Kong internet Exchange, the main hub for the city’s internet traffic. Set up in 1995, it allows all data between local servers to be routed locally instead of having to pass through exchanges in other countries, including the US.
But Mr Snowden told the South China Morning Post: “We hack network backbones – like huge internet routers, basically – that gives us access to the communications of hundreds of thousands of computers without having to hack every single one.”
He believes there are more than 61,000 NSA hacking operations globally with hundreds targeted in Hong Kong and China.
We hack network backbones – like huge internet routers, basically – that gives us access to the communications of hundreds of thousands of computers without having to hack every single one. – Edward Snowden
The tone of the comments have led to speculation that Mr Snowden is seeking asylum in Hong Kong or looking for state protection from Beijing. But among certain quarters in the US, it has sparked wider fears that he could even be attempting to defect to China.
These latest revelations will be of great interest to China, which for the last two years has tried to defend itself from accusations that it hacks America’s computers and networks. That row first came to a head in November 2011 when US intelligence officials first accused China publicly for the first time of stealing America’s high-tech data for economic gain.
A slew of allegations followed. The Virginia cyber security firm Mandiant published a detailed report in February directly linking a secret Chinese military unit in Shanghai to years of cyber attacks against US companies.
Just days before the Prism scandal broke, authorities in Beijing were pressed on reports in the Washington Post that that Chinese hackers stole information from over two dozen weapons programs, including the Patriot missile system, the F-35 joint strike fighter, and the navy’s new littoral combat ship.
Much of America’s suspicion of China’s supposed cyber hacking stems from a fear that the emerging superpower is pursing a long-term strategy of modernising its military – and that cyber-espionage is a key tool in that effort. There are suspicions that China’s alleged theft of designs for the F-35 fighter is allowing Beijing to develop its version much faster.
But the latest Prism accusations have thrown everything into flux.
In a summit in California last week Barack Obama pushed Chinese President Xi Jinping to do more to address online theft of US-owned intellectual property. Mr Xi responded by saying China claimed no responsibility for alleged cyber espionage and that his country was also a victim of attacks.
Now Mr Snowden’s allegations may have handed China the perfect smoking gun with which to back up that claim.