TIBET, CHINESE HACKERS AND THE MEDIA

TIBET, THE TRUTH AND MEDIA

Finding out the truth about what is going on in Tibet has traditionally been hard because Tibet is so hard to get to and inhospitable once one is there. These days the same is true because the Chinese government works hard to make sure that news that makes China look bad doesn’t get out, sometimes closing down the entire region to foreigners, journalists and other outsiders,

Journalists' access to Tibet is tightly restricted and all information from the region is extremely difficult to confirm. Tourists often have an easier time getting to Tibet than journalists who need permission from the government to legally enter, which is rarely granted unless that government has some motive to give it.

Cell phones, the Internet and digital cameras have help Tibetans spread the word among themselves and expose their plight to the outside world and helped the outside world communicate with them. In some places every Tibetan over 18 has a cell phone. Some Tibetans cut throw the Great Firewall censors with specially-rigged satellite dishes.

The government has tried, with varying degrees of success, to prevent Tibetans from accessing information about exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama and the exiled government on the Internet or via satellite television. Many Tibetans are still able to get such news, either via illegal satellite television or by skirting Chinese Internet restrictions.

Describing monks at the Longwu Temple in Qinghai after the riots in 2008, Melinda Liu wrote in Newsweek: “While boy novices...chanted late afternoon sutras in a golden prayer hall...older monks sat nearby sharing news they got from colleagues via wireless phone about arrests and body counts. Another monk flipped through a series of images in his digital 35 mm camera, showing...when Longwu’s lama’s defied rings of riot police...A senior lama opened his IBM laptop’ and ‘managed to call up video footage from clashes...between Tibetans and police in the surrounding town of Tingren.’

Villagers with satellite dishes can get Voice of American by pointing the dish in the proper direction and punching a 10 digit code into the signal receiver. Villagers from all over the village often show up to watch television.

Arrests of Independent News Sources in Tibet

In October 2013, Reporters without Borders reported: “The Chinese authorities have stepped up their persecution of independent Tibetan news providers in recent weeks, arresting three writers who are frequent information sources for external observers on the pretext that they carried out “political activities aimed at destroying social stability and dividing the Chinese homeland.” “Every arrest of a Tibetan who tried to inform his peers and the outside world about the dramatic situation in Tibet plunges the region further into isolation,” Reporters Without Borders said. [Source: Reporters without Borders, October 16, 2013 ~~]

“A Tibetan exile known only as Tharpa told Reporters Without Borders that he learned from two local sources that Kalsang Choedhar, a monk from Palyul monastery, was arrested in the market in Sog, in eastern Tibet, on 12 October for circulating information about a two-week-old crackdown by the Chinese authorities in Driru county. Choedhar’s mobile phone was confiscated following his arrest and he is currently being held incommunicado in an unknown location. Hundreds of Tibetan monks from Palyul monastery demonstrated outside Palyul county government offices and a police station to demand Choedhar’s release. Officials said he had been transferred to Chamdo. ~~

“Tsultrim Gyaltsen, a 27-year-old Tibetan writer who uses the pen-name of “Shokdril,” was arrested in Khardrong, in Driru province, on 11 October, and a 25-year-old associate known only as Yulgal was arrest the next day. Both are accused of “political activities aimed at destroying social stability and dividing the Chinese homeland.” Their current place of detention and physical condition are not known. Gyaltsen’s computer, mobile phone, books and other personal effects were confiscated by Chinese security officials who went to his home at 1 a.m., witnesses said. A former monk, Gyaltsen has written two books about Tibet and used to edit a Tibetan-language magazine called The New Generation. Yulgal is a former Security Bureau officer who resigned because of the “political” nature of his work. ~~

“The manner in which the three are being held is similar to that use with Lobsang Namygal, a Tibetan poet also known by the pen-name of “Sangming,” who has been held incommunicado ever since his arrest on 15 May 2012 for publishing the Dalai Lama’s banned speeches and other politically sensitive works about Tibet. Namygal’s detention was kept secret for more than a year. His family knew absolutely nothing about his whereabouts until March 2013, when they learned that he was probably being held in Chengdu prison (in Sichuan province) although they still did not know why. It was only in September that the authorities confirmed that he was being held in Chengdu and gave the grounds for his arrest. They also confirmed that he was not permitted any visits. He still has not been allowed to speak to a lawyer or receive visitors. ~~

“An employee of Chengdu’s Buddha Cultural Centre until his arrest, Namygal is the author of a book of poems that express his views and arguments in favour of Tibetan independence. He was previously held for a year after being arrested in 2008 in connection with demonstrations in Lhasa linked to the Beijing Olympics. ~~

“The situation of news and information providers is worrying throughout China but particularly in Tibet, where any criticism of the Chinese authorities is severely punished. Chinese embassy officials in Thailand directly threatened the French journalist Cyril Payen after France 24 broadcast his documentary “Seven Days in Tibet” in May and tried to get the TV station to remove it from its website.

Tibet and Hackers

The Dalai Lama has said that hackers have hacked into his computers and those of the Tibetan exile community and accessed e-mail and information, in one case getting information about a request for an Indian visa, with the Chinese government contacting an Indian embassy and telling them not to grant the visa. In other cases hackers have gained access to e-mails between exile offices just a few kilometers apart in Dharamsala.

The Dalai Lama has said he is not sure who the hackers are but is sure the stolen information finds its way to the Chinese government, A Canadian research group called the Information Warfare Monitors which looks into the matter said mainland hackers they have researched tend to be very nationalistic and ‘place as much importance on sovereignty [over Tibet] as Beijing does.’

Computers of the Tibetan Government in Exile and its support groups around the world have been attacked by a Chinese-made virus that some believe was sent an okay from Beijing.

Beijing Uses Fake Twitter Account to Spread Tibet Propaganda

In July 2014, London-based Free Tibet reported that Beijing has created at least 100 fake Twitter accounts to spread propaganda about Tibet and other Chinese concerns. According to AFP: The social networking site is blocked within China, but Free Tibet said it had identified around 100 accounts -- many of them bearing Western names, usually a combination of two forenames -- as "undoubtedly fake", adding there could be "hundreds more". They are dedicated to circulating China's message on Tibet and other issues. Profile pictures included photographs of US schoolgirls taken from professional photographers' websites, models, commercial stock images and images of celebrities including the late Pink Floyd singer Syd Barrett, it added. [Source: AFP, July 22, 2014 *-*]

“The roughly 20 accounts it highlighted were suspended on Tuesday, but the US-based China Digital Times, which tracks Chinese Internet and media activity, posted images of tweets by one of them, tomhugo148. They included: "Tibetans hail bumper harvest of highland barley", and "How People of China Perceive Dalai Lama". Free Tibet did not give evidence of who had set up the accounts, but described them as "China’s latest attempt to persuade the world that Tibet is a safe, protected and happy Chinese province". The content disseminated includes attacks on the Dalai Lama –- one tweet attacking the Tibetan spiritual leader has been retweeted 6,555 times, it said. They tweeted identical or very similar content, sometimes simultaneously, and the postings had "minimal 'personal' content" and instead provided links to Chinese Tibet-related sites. "The extensive nature of these abuses and apparently large number of suspicious accounts makes the provision of a definitive and comprehensive list impossible," it added. *-*

On the tomhugo148 fake account, Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times, “There’s a lot to admire about Tom Hugo, and not just the washboard abs that are a glaring feature of his Twitter account profile photo. For starters, Tom Hugo seems to be well-versed in Chinese, and he evidently cares deeply about the Tibetan people, judging from the profusion of messages he has posted on Twitter in recent months: There are photographs of Tibetans in “unique exotic dress,” articles showcasing the Tibetan people’s deep appreciation for China’s governance of the region and video clips that portray happy Tibetans “Tibetans hail bumper harvest of highland barley,” read the headline on one recent posting. There’s only one problem with Tom Hugo’s Twitter account: It’s fake. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, July 21, 2014 <<<]

“The visage accompanying the account belongs to a Brazilian model namedFelipe Berto, and nearly every video, article and photograph the ersatz Tom Hugo tweets comes via propaganda websites linked to the Chinese government. “When it comes to Tibet, nothing that China does surprises us, but this appears to be something new,” Alistair Currie, the media manager for Free Tibet, told the New York Times.“It’s an insidious effort to change the message and muddy the waters about Tibet.” <<<

“Although there is no direct evidence to link the Chinese government to the phony accounts, the content and breadth of the effort would suggest the involvement of a state actor. The subterfuge is not dissimilar to that carried out by members of China’s so-called Fifty Cent Party, the government-paid lurkers who earn 0.5 renminbi per posting on Internet message boards and chat rooms in an attempt to sway public opinion on issues deemed politically delicate by the Communist Party. “I genuinely struggle to think of anyone else who would stand to gain from this,” Mr. Currie said of the fake Twitter accounts.” <<<

“The use of fake Twitter accounts would also appear to dovetail with China’s increasingly sophisticated effort to present the country in a more flattering light while trying to bring the world around to its point of view on thorny issues, among them the continuing territorial dispute with Japan and widespread perception in the West that China restricts religious freedom and represses ethnic minorities like Tibetans and Uighurs. .But when it comes to leveraging Western social media outlets like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube — all of which are blocked here — Beijing’s efforts would appear to be a bit ham-handed. On Twitter, many of the fake accounts identified by Free Tibet use stock images or headshots found on the sites of commercial photographers in the United States. Others employ the likenesses of actors like Erica Durance, who played Lois Lane in the television series “Smallville,” or in one case, Syd Barrett, the lead vocalist of Pink Floyd, who died in 2006. Oddly, many of the Twitter handles, likeOliver Nina and Philomena Rebecca , appear to be created through the combination of two first names. Nearly all the profile images are those of Caucasians. It’s hard to say whether the counterfeit Twitter accounts that disseminate pro-Chinese propaganda are having the desired impact. Tom Hugo, the shirtless wonder, has more than 2,600 followers, but many appear to be fellow fraudsters who retweet the same material. One recent tweet, an article that described the Dalai Lama as a “chess piece ” used by the United States to contain China, was retweeted 6,500 times.” <<<

Cyber Attacks on the Tibetan Government in Exile

PaoPao reported: “In 2012, a Chinese cyber attack that infiltrated at least at least 30 computer systems of Tibetan advocacy groups for over ten months. In 2013, the CTA’s website Tibet.net was compromised in a so-called watering hole attack, which allows hackers to spy and subsequently attack website visitors. Greg Walton, an internet security researcher at Oxford University, is concerned at the growing number of these watering hole attacks. When they are combined with attacks that exploit software vulnerabilities, he argues that “there is essentially no defense for the end user, and no amount of awareness or training will mitigate the threat.”[Source: pao-pao.net, November 5, 2014, edgecastcdn.net /*\]

“A week prior to a scheduled interview with Time magazine’s editor Hanna Beech in Dharamsala, Lobsang Sangay, Tibet’s leader in exile, received an email from her. “She sent me the ten questions she would ask me. I found that very generous, journalists sending me questions ahead of time!” Sangay was about to download the attachment – but then he paused. “I grew a bit suspicious, so I decided to write back to her to ask if it was really her.” Beech said it wasn’t. The attack was sophisticated, but not uncommon, Sangay says. “We get that on a daily basis, literally; some Tibetan support group or someone from our office sends an email that will contain a virus.” /*\

Ghostnet

It wasn’t the first time that the Tibetan administration was under Chinese cyber attack. In 2008, the large-scale cyber spying operation Ghostnet managed to extract emails and other data from the CTA. Ghostnet also affected other Tibet-related organizations, as well as embassies and government organizations across the world. A year later, ShadowNet was employed, which the researchers from the Infowar Monitor (IWM) at the University of Toronto called a form of “cyber espionage 2.0”. [Source: pao-pao.net, November 5, 2014]

The IWM researchers were able to establish that the hackers worked from within China, but they have been hesitant to link these hackers to the Chinese government due to a lack of direct evidence. However, an American cable released by Wikileaks describes a “sensitive report” that was able to establish a connection between the attackers’ location and the Chinese army.

Cyber Attack on Lobsang Sangay, Tibet’s Leader-in-Exile

PaoPao reported: “When Lobsang Sangay reached his office, on September 16, 2011, a few weeks after he became Tibet’s new political leader, he found his whole office “in a very bad mood.” The atmosphere was chaotic and panicked, he remembers: “People were running from computer to computer.” Just a A top-secret memo about an upcoming visit to the US had somehow been obtained from the government’s computers, and leaked to the public domain. “Everything was supposed to be very confidential, and the memo was only meant for three people in Washington DC,” Lobsang Sangay says.[Source: pao-pao.net, November 5, 2014, edgecastcdn.net /*\]

“Sangay did go to the US, and in the end, the visit went ahead as planned. But the attack was a shock to him. “First of all, that Beijing is so capable of penetrating our computers that they can get at even our very confidential memos,” Sangay said. “But also, that when I came back to the office, they were logging into every computer in the office and trying to shut it down, trying to track down which computer was affected with a virus and how they stole the secret memo. The whole place was shut down.” /*\

“The 2011 attack propelled Sangay to tighten the administration’s digital security. “At the time, there was a different mindset about it: ‘Oh, we can’t do much about it, Beijing can do whatever it wants,’” he recalls. Sangay didn’t agree. “I thought that we could upgrade our security to a certain level. Now, even if we have a virus, it’s only on one computer, we can isolate it.” /*\

“Suffice to say, Sangay does not believe that absolute security is possible. “Beijing is still, I am sure, trying to steal things. And I am sure they are successful, in some sense. But we also have to try to make it a little more difficult,” he says. “I assume my email is being read on a daily basis. The Pentagon, the CIA, multinational companies are all being hacked, and they are spending hundreds of millions to protect themselves.” Sangay throws up his hands: “Poor me! My administration’s budget is around 50 plus million dollars. Even if I would spend my whole budget to protect my email account, that still wouldn’t be enough.” /*\

“Sangay does believe that many problems can be avoided with a few basic precautions. He uses very long passwords for instance, and changes them often to prevent email hacks. And, Sangay says, “You always have to follow’s Buddha’s message. What would Buddha say if you send him an email? ‘No attachment please!’” Sangay laughs. “One of the cardinal sins in Buddhism is attachment. Well, Buddha’s lessons, who said that 2,500 years ago, are still valid.” /*\

Lobsang Sangay on Skyping with Woeser

PaoPao reported: “Since Sangay was elected, it has been too risky for him to keep in touch with Tibetans in China via the Internet. But before his election, like many other Tibetans, he was in touch with Tibetans inside China almost every day. During his years at Harvard, he often skyped with the famed Tibetan blogger and activist Tsering Woeser. [Source: pao-pao.net, November 5, 2014, edgecastcdn.net /*\]

“It almost became an everyday ritual. I would go to the office, and then at a particular time I would log on and we would talk for half hour or more. Because her Tibetan wasn’t good, I became her unpaid, amateur Tibetan language teacher.” Sangay laughs as he recalls Woeser’s unsuccessful attempts to crack jokes in her – at the time – mediocre Tibetan. /*\

“I had to stop talking to her for fear that I might endanger her,” Sangay says. But he still admires her work: “She is a good source of information. She compiles information from inside and shares with the rest of the world. She is very bold.” He considers bloggers like her an invaluable resource for those who want to know what life in Tibet is really like. /*\

Lobsang Sangay on Pluses and Minuses of the Internet and Tibet

PaoPao reported: “For the Tibetan government, digital communications have offered Chinese hackers a welcome point of attack. But Sangay also emphasizes the positive sides of the internet: “Despite the Firewall, information breaks through, and is exchanged. That is happening, and that is not something that the Chinese government or any other government can prevent.”He points to the 2008 protests in Tibet as one example. In the protests, which some dubbed “the cellphone revolution”, written reports, videos and photos from eyewitnesses were able to make their way to the rest of the world via cellphones.[Source: pao-pao.net, November 5, 2014, edgecastcdn.net /*\]

“Additionally, the Internet has allowed the Tibetan Central Administration in Dharamsala, home of about 100,000 Tibetans, to strengthen its bonds with the approximately 50,000 exiled Tibetans living elsewhere. Sangay says that the exile community, “scattered across some forty countries”, keeps in touch mainly through the internet. “The internet has been very vital. The other day, I was speaking to Tibetans in Belgium. I asked them how many log in to Tibet.net, our website, and how many watch Tibetan online TV. About 40 percent raised their hands.” Tibetans from inside Tibet even manage to send Sangay “one-off messages” via Facebook from time to time. “Things like: ‘I wish you well’, from Facebook accounts that are immediately deleted.” /*\

“Tibetans inside and outside of China now also communicate constantly via WeChat, but that is not without danger. A year ago, two monks in Tibet were arrested and jailed after posting pictures of self-immolations via the chat app. “Many say it’s very dangerous, because it’s an app by a Chinese company,” Sangay concedes. Still, he also considers “very helpful and informative” as long as it used to discuss safe topics. /*\

“The Tibetan administration consciously abstains from contacting Tibetans inside China, “for fear that we might jeopardize them,” Sangay says. “We get a little less than 100,000 readers to our website every month, and we know many are from inside Tibet and China as well. We know it’s happening, but we really don’t make deliberate efforts [to contact them], and we also don’t keep track.” /*\

“So will the Internet ultimately be a force for good or evil? Sangay doesn’t know. “It all depends on who uses it. For good, if more good people use it.” On the one hand, he is awed by how nowadays, “in zero seconds, at almost zero cost, you can send vast volumes of information.” But he worries about the security side of the Internet. “Ultimately, the [power] dynamic is so asymmetrical. One has wealth, and control over access to stronger and better technology, and one doesn’t.” That, of course, is a power dynamic that the Tibetan leader has long ago gotten accustomed to. “I think the David and Goliath battle will go on, even on the internet,” Sangay says. “Ultimately, if David will prevail, we will have to see.” /*\

Makers of Film About Tibet Attacked by Hackers

Ellen Nakashima wrote in the Washington Post, “The trouble began even before the American filmmakers set foot in the Tibetan region of China. A member of their crew in India noticed that her laptop screen would flash occasionally — an unseen hand taking a screen shot of her computer. Her cursor would move around unbidden on her screen. Sometimes her laptop abruptly logged her off. Once the filmmakers got to the Tibetan region, their laptop was hacked, its operating system wiped out and a related Web site in Los Angeles deluged with so much traffic that it crashed. The cyberattacks on the team led by filmmakers Christian Johnston and Darren Mann started nearly five years ago and continued for so long that they delayed completion of the documentary about Tibet, “State of Control.” [Source: Ellen Nakashima, Washington Post, March 28, 2013 |::|]

“The filmmakers are convinced that the Chinese government is behind the attacks, but the evidence is circumstantial. The Chinese government has a history of hacking into the computers of human rights activists. The cyber-harassment of the film crew began in 2008 when spontaneous protests across the Tibetan region led to a crackdown by the Chinese government. Mann and Johnston flew to Dharmsala, India, and Kathmandu, Nepal, to talk with the Tibetan communities in exile there. In India, their production coordinator, Claire Barnhoorn, noticed that she would be abruptly signed out of her Gmail account, sometimes while she was in the middle of writing an e-mail. Then her laptop screen would start flashing.

“People were in control of my computer,” said Barnhoorn, who was helping arrange interviews. “It was just crazy. Before I met Darren and Christian, I never had any of these issues.” Barnhoorn said that her cellphone made clicking sounds when she was on a call and that she could hear Chinese voices in the background. The harassment continued after she returned to Amsterdam in fall 2008.” |::|

“After arriving in Tibet,” Mann, 45, discovered that his business Web site had crashed under a barrage of traffic. A few days later, in a hotel room in Rebkong, an autonomous Tibetan prefecture in China, Johnston opened his laptop and found the bluetooth wireless function turned on, his computer “shared” with another one and the desktop wiped clean. Communications with the crew in Los Angeles and Dharmsala also were lost. About 10 days into the trip, the level of frustration peaked. The pair had been trailed everywhere, videotaped by security personnel. “As of two hours ago, my Web site and my e-mail was completely wiped out and doesn’t exist,” Mann says in the still-unreleased documentary after being turned back at a checkpoint. |::|

“The tactics continued even after their return to the United States. A producer said his Web site had suffered a denial-of-service attack that crashed the server. He saw what had happened to other people and, spooked by it, quit the job. In January 2010, one of the movie’s subjects, a Tibetan American activist named Tenzin Seldon, learned that she had become a victim of Chinese cyberspies. Seldon, then a student at Stanford University, was contacted by a Google security official who told her that hackers in China had broken into her Gmail account. That month, Google announced that its systems had been hacked and the source code stolen and that Gmail accounts of human rights activists had been breached. |::|

“The incidents piled up. A film editor in Los Angeles received a Google alert that her e-mail account had been “recently accessed from China.” A producer in Denver noticed project files missing from her laptop. As she sought to back up the remaining files on her hard drive, her laptop froze and failed to reboot. A technician analyzed router logs from her wireless network and found that many of the Internet protocol addresses her laptop was communicating with were in China. “There’s no reason for her machine to talk to China,” said Ralph Echemendia, a cybersecurity expert who helps movie studios. In 2013, Johnston checked his e-mail archive and found that a series of e-mail communications with his crew from July through September 2008 had disappeared.” |::|

China Seizes TVs, Satellite Equipment in Tibetan Area

In December 2012, Reuters reported: “Chinese authorities have confiscated televisions from 300 monasteries in a heavily Tibetan part of the west of the country and dismantled satellite equipment that broadcast "anti-China" programs, prompted by Tibetan self-immolations in the region. Five self-immolations occurred in Tibetan-dominated Huangnan prefecture in Qinghai province. [Source: Reuters, December 27, 2012]

The government in Huangnan said its approach in tackling self-immolations comprised of "guiding public opinion on the Dalai issue", increasing patrols and "blocking outside harmful information", according to the news agency, which is managed by the Qinghai government. "At this critical moment for maintaining social stability in Huangnan prefecture ... (we must) strengthen measures and fully fight the special battle against self-immolations," the article said. "We do not know anything about it," an official from the Huangnan prefecture government told Reuters by telephone, when asked to confirm the report, before hanging up.

The article said the prefecture's agricultural and pastoral areas had relied on certain satellite equipment "to watch and listen to overseas, anti-China programs". The local government would invest 8.64 million yuan ($1.39 million) to install 50 transmitters that would broadcast 70 percent of the prefecture's television channels, the report said.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: 1) Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China , edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K.Hall & Company, 1994); 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~; 3) Ethnic China ethnic-china.com \*\; 4) Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/; 5) China.org, the Chinese government news site china.org *|* New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated July 2015

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