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This article was published on November 8, 2012

China watchers subjected to Twitter hacking attempts as transfer of political power begins [update]

China watchers subjected to Twitter hacking attempts as transfer of political power begins [update]
Josh Ong
Story by

Josh Ong

Josh Ong is the US Editor at The Next Web. He previously worked as TNW's China Editor and LA Reporter. Follow him on Twitter or email him a Josh Ong is the US Editor at The Next Web. He previously worked as TNW's China Editor and LA Reporter. Follow him on Twitter or email him at [email protected].

As China began its once-in-a-decade leadership transfer during its 18th National Congress on Thursday, several prominent journalists, academics and pundits simultaneously reported that their Twitter accounts had been subject to hacking attempts.

Update: The rash of compromise accounts is affecting a large number of non-China accounts as well, suggesting that this is likely a global issue. Twitter has issued a statement, pasted below.

For instance, Tsinghua University business professor Patrick Chovanec noted that his account had been hacked. He was booted out of a Twitter session and received an email that his account had been compromised.

While the incident could possibly be unrelated to current political events, as the old adage goes, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Several other China watchers, including some not based in the mainland, chimed in that they had received similar messages.

The China Media Project received a notification that others had attempted to access its account

Other affected users include Christina Larson, Mara Hvistendahl, OffbeatChina, Adam Minter, Ray Kwong and Mei Fong, all notable voices within the China-related Twitterverse.

Users experiencing possible security issues with Twitter may want to read the company’s support article on keeping their accounts secure.

At this point it’s not known who or what is responsible for the unauthorized login attempts, but China has long been suspected of either permitting or outright employing nationalist hackers, and the timing of the attacks is particularly curious.

Google left the Chinese market in 2010 in part because of a cyberattack from China that targeted local activists.

“In mid-December, we detected a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China that resulted in the theft of intellectual property from Google,” the company wrote in a press release announcing that it would no longer censor search results in China. “We have evidence to suggest that a primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists.”

The Chinese government denied the accusations and called them “unacceptable.” The country has, however, admitted to training an elite unit of cyber-soldiers, called the “Blue Army,” but it says the team is focused on self-defense and “won’t initiate an attack on anyone.”

The run-up to the Party Congress has caused trouble for Internet users in China. The Wall Street Journal compiled several sources that suggested connections were suffering from “increased difficulties” in recent weeks.

VPN services in particular appear to have been hard hit. For instance, a spokesperson for Witopia told the Journal that the company was experiencing “one of the most severe” disruptions in service in its history. Anecdotally, I use Witopia from Beijing and have had trouble connecting to it recently.

Millions of Chinese residents are hoping for an uneventful handover that will preserve stability China. All well and good, but I, for one, am looking forward to the domestic Internet returning to its normal state so I can get back to work with fewer interruptions.

Twitter has issued the following statement:

We’re committed to keeping Twitter a safe and open community. As part of that commitment, in instances when we believe an account may have been compromised, we reset the password and send an email letting the account owner know this has happened along with information about creating a new password. This is a routine part of our processes to protect our users.

In this case, we unintentionally reset passwords of a larger number of accounts, beyond those that we believed to have been compromised. We apologize for any inconvenience or confusion this may have caused.

As always, we recommend that people review these tips on how to keep their Twitter accounts secure:

See also: The Great Firewall: China’s digital margins

Image credit: Ed Jones / AFP / Getty Images