An announcement on Monday that a grand jury in the United States has indicted five Chinese hackers for cyber espionage and other offenses directed at the U.S. nuclear power, metals and solar products industries has renewed concerns that a number of Caribbean governments may be at risk as recipients of personal computers supplied by foreign agencies.
The U.S. indictment alleges that the defendants conspired to hack into American entities to maintain unauthorized access to their computers and to steal information from those entities.
In some cases, it alleges, the conspirators stole trade secrets. In other cases, it alleges, the conspirators also stole sensitive, internal communications.
“The range of trade secrets and other sensitive business information stolen in this case is significant and demands an aggressive response,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said.
The five Chinese hackers were each charged with 31 offenses.
Late last year, reports emerged that clandestine hardware modifications to donated computers could represent a potential security threat to governments in the Caribbean and elsewhere.
In October 2013, Russia was reported to have spied on foreign powers at a G20 summit near St Petersburg by giving delegations USB flash drives capable of downloading sensitive information from laptops. The devices were given to foreign delegates at the summit, including heads of state.
Computers manufactured by Lenovo, a Chinese company originally created by a Chinese government department and now one of the world’s largest computer makers, have been banned by intelligence agencies around the world because of concerns over hardware exploits inserted into the production line by the manufacturer, the Australian Financial Review reported last year.
In 2009, Canadian researchers reported that an electronic spy network, based mainly in China, had infiltrated computers in government offices around the world. They said the network had infiltrated 1,295 computers in 103 countries, and included computers belonging to foreign ministries and embassies.
Meanwhile, the latest leak from U.S. National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden asserts that the agency “routinely” bugs computer network equipment made in the United States and sent to customers abroad.
In an internal newsletter in June 2010, the chief of the NSA’s Access and Target Development department explained the process of intercepting routers, servers and other network hardware to install backdoor surveillance tools, then repackaging the devices with a factory seal and sending them on to targets.
“Here’s how it works: shipments of computer network devices (servers, routers, etc,) being delivered to our targets throughout the world are intercepted. Next, they are redirected to a secret location where [NSA] employees … enable the installation of beacon implants directly into our targets’ electronic devices. These devices are then re-packaged and placed back into transit to the original destination. All of this happens with the support of intelligence community partners,” the document revealed.
The NSA thus gains access to entire networks and all their users.
There is no reason to suppose that the equivalent technology is beyond the reach of the Chinese, with delivery being accomplished not necessarily by intercepting shipments but by simple gifts.
Antigua and Barbuda signed a bilateral agreement with China to provide 500 laptop computers towards the One Laptop per Child Policy in secondary schools. China has also provided the government of Antigua and Barbuda with military aid, including computers.
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