Reporting from Beijing — The pitch was tantalizing: Just a little training and you too could hack websites, earning thrills, power and, in many cases, money.
"Guaranteed successful attack tools!" is how Black Hawk Safety Net advertised its online academy for hackers. "Spare one minute to learn and you'll make your life more exciting."
Police in Hubei province announced to the Chinese media over the weekend that they had closed down the operation, which state media said was the largest training site for Chinese hackers, and arrested three of its ringleaders. Black Hawk is accused of collecting more than $1 million in tuition from 12,000 subscribers and 170,000 others who took its online courses, according to Chinese media.
Police actually shut down the network in November, two months before Google made international headlines when it said it might leave China after it was hit by a series of cyber attacks originating there.
To some, the announcement now suggests that the Chinese government could be getting more serious about cracking down.
"In legal terms, these hacking crimes are completely new and only recently have prosecutors understood how dangerous they are," said Li Xuxi, a Beijing lawyer, who applauded the arrest of Black Hawk's founders. "In China, as elsewhere in the world, the trend is to get stricter with these kinds of crimes."
But critics say the arrests might be little more than a propaganda ploy in the midst of the Google scandal.
"It seems aimed at bolstering the Foreign Ministry's claim that China is getting tough on hackers. This is meant for an international audience, not for domestic criminal prosecution," said James Mulvenon, director of the Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis at Defense Group Inc., based in Washington.
If China is going to get serious about hacking, prosecutors have their work cut out for them. On the Web, in magazines and on occasional bus stop ads, Internet users are beckoned with invitations to become heike, or "black visitor," the Chinese term for hacker.
Even the names -- "EvilOctal" and "Dark Security Team" -- make unvarnished appeals to the criminal side.
"Most of the members are really young, still students, and they are drawn by the mystique of being a hacker," said a well-known Chinese hacker who goes by the name Lyon.
"China's Internet security is still very weak, so it is a hothouse environment for nurturing these kinds of businesses."
Some hacker networks say they provide a service by hacking into websites and then selling their services to bolster security for those same sites.
But other groups teach how to break into financial accounts to steal money or how to disable websites of competitors.
Some claim their motives are purely political.
"We are the real patriotic youth. We'll target anti-China websites across the nation and send it as a birthday gift to our country," boasted a website called 2009.90, which, when opened, showed an image of a fluttering Chinese flag.
One of the difficulties in cracking down on hackers is their level of acceptance in society. Top Chinese hackers hold a yearly conference in Beijing under the name Xcon.
Moreover, some cyber warfare experts have accused the Chinese government of sponsoring the more sophisticated attacks, such as those against human rights groups and political adversaries like the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader.
Black Hawk and other academies, says Mulvenon, have not been implicated in the major attacks.
"These academies like Black Hawk are primarily moneymaking ventures, like self-help schools for people who want to better themselves," said Mulvenon.
The Black Hawk site started up in 2005 in Xuchang, a Henan province city bordering Hubei. It first came to the attention of authorities in 2007 when an Internet cafe owner complained that his Internet service mysteriously stopped working and that somebody was demanding more than $1,000 to restore it, according to a report in the Hubei provincial newspaper.
Eventually, police arrested the perpetrators and traced the attack back to Black Hawk.
Offices rented by the company were raided in late November. Two of the founders of Black Hawk were arrested in December and a third man in January, according to the official Chinese media.
Although Black Hawk's original website was taken down, it appears that a new one has been set up under a different address. And memberssay they don't believe the bust will make a dent in China's hacking culture.
"I'm not worried about Black Hawk being taken down at all," Zhang Quanhua, a 46-year-old website designer, said in an e-mail interview. He said he was using the site to brush up his computer skills.
"There are tons of similar forums just like Black Hawk. Any forums that broke the law will be taken down, but they'll be OK as long as they are not hacking for profit."
Tommy Yang of The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.