Snowden: “US Gov’t Has Been Hacking China for Years” (Updated)

After reportedly disappearing upon checking out of the Hong Kong hotel room in which former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed his identity to The Guardian newspaper on June 9, the whistleblower talked to the South China Morning Post in a secret Hong Kong location. Snowden told the Morning Post that he will remain in Hong Kong to fight possible extradition charges from the U.S. government, and also claimed that the U.S. government has long been hacking Hong Kong and mainland Chinese computer systems:

Snowden said that according to unverified documents seen by the Post, the NSA had been hacking computers in Hong Kong and on the mainland since 2009. None of the documents revealed any information about Chinese military systems, he said.

One of the targets in the SAR, according to Snowden, was Chinese University and public officials, businesses and students in the city. The documents also point to hacking activity by the NSA against mainland targets.

Snowden believed there had been more than 61,000 NSA hacking operations globally, with hundreds of targets in Hong Kong and on the mainland.

“We hack network backbones – like huge internet routers, basically – that give us access to the communications of hundreds of thousands of computers without having to hack every single one,” he said.

“Last week the American government happily operated in the shadows with no respect for the consent of the governed, but no longer. Every level of society is demanding accountability and oversight.” [Source]

The Morning Post has published a series of articles based on their correspondence with Snowden, focusing on his claims that the U.S. is “bullying” Hong Kong into his extradition, his desire to let the people of Hong Kong decide his fate, and his fear to contact his loved ones.

In his initial revelatory interview with The Guardian, Snowden answered a question regarding the Obama administration’s protests against Chinese hacking by drawing a parallel: “we [the U.S.] hack everyone everywhere.” While prominent Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei feels that Snowden’s leak shows that the U.S. that is becoming more like China, The Washington Post asks the question “are Chinese and American hacking really as equivalent as Snowden suggests?”:

[...] It’s both possible and even plausible that the U.S. could be conducting cyber espionage within China that meets or even exceeds China’s efforts. The Obama administration’s joint program with Israel to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program with a virus called Stuxnet might just be the tip of the iceberg. But Snowden’s leaks do not seem to demonstrate that American cyber espionage is near on par with China’s when it comes to hacking into civilian and government systems in foreign countries. [Source]

Click through to see the Post’s comparison of known U.S. and China based cyber campaigns.

An expert voice has weighed in on the question of Snowden’s uncertain future in Hong Kong. Human Right’s Watch’s emergencies director looks at a recent case of Hong Kong cooperating with the U.S. on extradition to express his opinion that Snowden may have unwisely chosen his destination. From The Guardian:

“There’s little doubt [reason] to believe that the Hong Kong authorities would not co-operate with the CIA in this case,” said Peter Bouckaert, who after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi found faxes in Tripoli indicating that the Hong Kong authorities had co-operated with the CIA in rendering an anti-Gaddafi Islamist to Libya.

Snowden said he had chosen Hong Kong as the place from which to reveal his identity as the source of the Guardian’s series of stories about US surveillance because “they have a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent“, and because he believed that it was one of the few places in the world that could and would resist the dictates of the US government.

Bouckaert, however, said Snowden was mistaken on both points.

[...] On Tuesday, a spokesman for Vladimir Putin said that if Snowden applied for asylum in Russia, the request would be considered.

“If such an appeal is given, it will be considered. We’ll act according to facts,” said Dmitry Peskov. [Source]

Snowden told SCMP, however, that “people who think I made a mistake in picking HK as a location misunderstand my intentions,” and raised eyebrows by saying of Russia that “I am glad there are governments that refuse to be intimidated by great power.”

Update (10:50 pm PST June 12): The Chinese government has offered the first quasi-official response through an article in the China Daily, which said the revelations about NSA surveillance will, “test developing Sino-US ties”:

Li Haidong, a researcher of American studies at China Foreign Affairs University, said the United States is now stuck in the awkward position of having to explain itself to its citizens and the world following the exposure of Washington’s vast Internet snooping program.

“For months, Washington has been accusing China of cyberespionage, but it turns out that the biggest threat to the pursuit of individual freedom and privacy in the US is the unbridled power of the government,”Li said.

Zhang Tuosheng, a researcher at the China Foundation for International and Strategic Studies, said that despite controversies, cybersecurity is still proving to be a new realm for cooperation between China and the US, especially in the wake of this surveillance controversy.

“Beijing and Washington, instead of criticizing each other while hiding their own problems, should work together to facilitate a series of well-observed regulations,”Zhang said. [Source]