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Computer attacks are suspicious

Activists critical of China are beset by hackers and viruses.

August 07, 2008|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — The bane of many human rights groups these days is a growing number of computer viruses, data-stealing Trojan horses and other malicious software being routed from China.

Although activists said they couldn't prove the Chinese government was behind the assaults, their sophistication suggests an adept attacker with extensive resources.

In a case in 2000, however, before technology advances allowed hackers to hide so well, a protracted cyber-attack on the Falun Gong spiritual group's sites in the U.S., Britain and Canada was traced to computers in China's Ministry of Public Security, according to a report by Rand Corp.

In some cases, the attackers use viruses rarely seen before, suggesting they're tailor-made, said Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based researcher with Human Rights Watch.

A common tactic involves e-mails that look as though they're from another rights group but contain attachments that wreak havoc on the recipient's system, he said.

In one recent case, an infected attachment identified as a report from Amnesty International arrived within hours of the real report's release.

The Dream for Darfur activist group said it was alerted by a congressman's office a few months ago that its website was infecting visitors in what is known as a cross-site scripting attack. The matter has been referred to the FBI.

"We're an organization of five people, and we're disbanding at the end of this month," group spokesman Jonathan Freedman said. "It's an indication of their unwillingness to allow any freedom of speech."

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mark.magnier@latimes.com

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