China plunges into cyber war as Google threatens to pull out

In the dark days of the Soviet Union, with its ever-present threat  of arbitrary incarceration in the Gulag Archipelago, samizdat was a key form of communication between dissidents. Then, it consisted of often hand-written or typed copies of a sensitive document passed from hand to hand, to avoid arousing suspicion.

Nowadays, things have moved on – to China, Iran and the internet. A curious illustration of this has been provided by events in cyber space over the past 24 hours (although their direct causal relationship remains anyone’s guess).

It all started with the sensational revelation that, after four years, Google was going write off billions of dollars investment and close its operation in China. The reason stated was that the Chinese government had broken its side of the contractual bargain, amounting to non-interference in an auto-censorship regime, by attempting to hack into the Gmail accounts of several Chinese human rights activists. This is no doubt true, but there is also a hint of Google frustration at being unable to crack the Chinese market (the biggest in the world) in the same way it has done elsewhere. After four years of struggle, Google has gained a “mere” 30% share. Much of the rest of the Chinese search market (60%) is held by a single operator, Baidu, which seemingly enjoys a much more relaxed relationship with the authorities.

Baidu executives, however, will have spent little of yesterday popping the champagne. They were far too busy warding off a cyber attack which for much of the day  paralysed their operation. The culprits were a mysterious band of hackers calling themselves the Iranian Cyber Army. It is not the first time they have struck. Last month, the ICA attacked Twitter, which makes some sense if we look on the hackers as a proxy of the Iranian government. Twitter has been widely used by the increasingly vocal Iranian opposition as a means of communication. Less clear is why the Iranian Cyber Army should go on to attack Baidu. Some say it’s another covert attack on Twitter. Twitter is blocked in China, but several thousand people there have apparently found ways to use the micro-blogger to lend support to the Iranian opposition. If so, the tactic is a sledgehammer to crack a nut with some very negative consequences in view. The Chinese and Iranian governments enjoy a close and mutually supportive relationship. Why jeopardise them? Which rather suggest the Iranian Cyber Army is not what it purports to be at all. Is it perhaps an Iranian opposition group masquerading as a government covert operation? A bunch of mischievous hackers? Or ICA an anagram of CIA?

I don’t know. All I can say is that shortly after Baidu went down, the Iranian website room98.ir appeared to be the victim of a counterattack from an organisation calling itself the Honker Union for China.

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