Edward Snowden, the former U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) contractor who has been leaking information on U.S. intelligence operations, has revealed to the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post that the NSA has run extensive operations in recent years against China's Tsinghua University and mobile phone companies.
Early Sunday morning local time, SCMP reported that:
“It is not known how many times the prestigious university has been attacked by the NSA but details shown to the Post by Snowden reveal that one of the most recent breaches was this January.
The information also showed that the attacks on Tsinghua University were intensive and concerted efforts. In one single day of January, at least 63 computers and servers in Tsinghua University have been hacked by the NSA.”
Tsinghua University is considered by many to be mainland China’s best university and research institute.
More importantly, it hosts one of China’s six major backbone networks, the China Education and Research Network (CERNET). Unlike many of the other major backbone networks, the one at Tsinghua University is nominally run by private universities rather than the Chinese government, although it technically is still owned by China’s Department of Education.
Snowden previously told SCMP that U.S. intelligence agencies had run extensive cyber-espionage operations against the Chinese University of Hong Kong, which serves as the central hub of internet users in Hong Kong.
By targeting the network hubs themselves the U.S. intelligence agencies could potentially have gained access to data from millions of Chinese citizens. Snowden collaborated his claims that Tsinghua University had been targeted by showing the Hong Kong newspaper information on internet users obtained during the operations.
In response to earlier Snowden leaks on U.S. cyber intelligence operations against China, last week China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs set up a cyber affairs office dedicated to protecting cyber networks used for diplomatic activities, Chinese state media reported. Chinese officials have also said they will raise the issue of U.S. snooping on Chinese computer networks with their American counterparts during the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, which is scheduled to be held in Washington, DC in July.
Snowden also told South China Morning Post that U.S. intelligence agencies had targeted Chinese mobile phone companies in a bad to steal millions of text messages and SMS data on Chinese citizens. It was unclear if he provided evidence to back up this specific claim, however, China is home to the largest mobile phone company in the world, China Mobile, and text message is the preferred means of communication for many Chinese citizens and government officials.
Last year, people in China sent 90 billion text messages, according to news report.
The U.S. government unsealed part of a criminal complaint they filed against Snowden, who is believed to be in Hong Kong, back on June 14. He is being charged with theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information and willful communication of classified communications intelligence to an unauthorized person.
There have been conflicting reports about Snowden’s whereabouts in Hong Kong in recent days. Some reports have suggested that he has been given a safe house and is being guarded by Hong Kong or Chinese authorities. SCMP, whom Snowden has communicated with extensively since arriving in Hong Kong, denied these reports saying that he is in a safe but secret location in Hong Kong. The city, a British Colony until 1997, is formally apart of China but enjoys a high degree of autonomy including an independent judicial system.
Hong Kong formally maintains an extradition treaty with the United States but most experts are saying a request for Hong Kong to extradite Snowden to the United States to stand trial would take years, if it happened at all. On Saturday, some Hong Kong lawmakers called on Chinese government in Beijing to make the final determination on whether to extradite Snowden to the United States.
Some U.S. lawmakers and other Americans have accused Snowden of being a spy for the Chinese government, a charge Snowden vehemently denies.