China announced a major bust of computer hackers, with state media saying officials had shut what they called the country's largest distributor of tools used in malicious Internet attacks.
Three people were arrested on suspicion of making hacking tools available online, the state-run Xinhua news agency said Monday. Their business, known as Black Hawk Safety Net, operated through the now-shuttered Web site 3800cc.com and generated around $1 million in income from more than 12,000 subscribers, the report said.
The three were detained in late November as part of a police investigation that spanned three Chinese provinces and resulted in part from Black Hawk's role in domestic cyberattacks, according to Xinhua.
The delay in announcing the case wasn't explained, but it isn't unusual for Chinese authorities to wait months to make such legal moves public.
U.S. cybersecurity specialists said China was seeking to make a public statement in the wake of Google Inc.'s allegations last month that hackers from China were behind sophisticated attacks against the Internet search giant and a number of other foreign companies. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also raised concerns about hacking from China.
China was seeking to say, "we care about keeping the Internet free of criminals and we are doing our part," said Alan Paller, director of research at the SANS Institute, a cybersecurity research group. "Sadly, the tack they took is just a whack-a-mole exercise," he added, saying other hackers will take their place.
China in recent weeks has waged an aggressive public-relations campaign on the issue of hacking, apparently aimed at least in part at discrediting Google's allegations. China's state media called Mrs. Clinton's comments hypocritical, in part because the U.S. is a center of many hacking activities.
Beijing has already made strides against pornography and gambling on Chinese Web sites. The percentage of the globe's malicious software that is hosted in China has also fallen sharply in recent years, according to U.K.-based cybersecurity company Sophos PLC, a possible indication of what Beijing says is its intolerance of illegal hacking.
China's closure of Black Hawk Safety Net reflects the use of a criminal-law clause introduced last year that makes it illegal to offer others online attack programs. Xinhua said some 1.7 million yuan in assets, or about $249,000, were also seized, including cash, nine servers, five computers and a car.
State-media reports described Black Hawk as offering hacking "training," which is a euphemism for selling malicious software. Xinhua said the site helped disseminate a computer virus in 2007 that wreaked havoc on private and government computers in the city of Macheng, in the central province of Hubei.
The Macheng prosecutor's office, in a statement, identified two men formally arrested in the case on Dec. 31 as 29-year-old Li Qiang and 28-year-old Zhang Lei, whom it identified as founders of Black Hawk. The men couldn't be reached to comment. A man answering phones at an office of Black Hawk in the Henan province city of Xuchang said its servers had been shut down but that he couldn't elaborate.
Chinese hackers have described the Black Hawk operation, which also included the site 3800hk.com, as important, but just among the many on the Internet. Increasingly, they say, programs designed to break into Internet-connected computers, known as hacking tools, are available on Chinese-language sites located outside the country.
Numerous reports have fingered Chinese sources as the suspects in various cyberattacks, including ones that targeted the offices of Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama and the German chancellor's office. Within China, various attacks over the years have involved theft of user accounts and whole Web site source code.
Determining the origin of Internet attacks is hard, however. While Google alleged that the hacking attempts it faced originated in China, for instance, outside experts briefed on the attacks say they were actually traced to servers in Taiwan, which some experts say Chinese hackers could have used as a cover.
Also, China's limited bandwidth and Internet filters may make the country a less desirable base than many other places to launch heavy-duty global hacks or spread spam email: "If you want to attack the U.S. from China you can't because the pipes aren't that big," says Steve Mushero, chief executive of Shanghai-based services firm ChinaNetCloud.
China has described itself as hackers' largest global victim. According to a report released last year by the National Computer Network Emergency Response Coordination Center of China, Xinhua said, the hacker industry in China caused losses of 7.6 billion yuan in 2009.
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