A 2007 hacker attack on an Internet café in Hubei Province in China has led to the discovery and dismantling of an online hacker training camp accused of providing malicious software and lessons in hacker technique to tens of thousands of Chinese users. The site, called Black Hawk Safety Net, has been shut down and three people have been arrested, but as with many stories coming out of the People’s Republic these days, it’s difficult to tell exactly what’s what.
Chinese state media reports that Black Hawk collected some $1 million from 12,000 paying subscribers in exchange for lessons in hacking techniques and Trojan software that can be used to illegally hijack computers over the Web. Another 170,000 people had signed up for free memberships to the site at the time of its brush with the law, during which several servers and computers as well as $250,000 in assets were seized.
The seizure comes on the heels of a high-profile dust-up between China and Google, in which Google and the U.S. government accused Chinese hackers — possibly working in conjunction with state organs — of executing very sophisticated cyber attacks on U.S. and European companies. Those attacks were specifically aimed at high-value targets like banks, defense contractors and tech companies as well as at the private email accounts of known human rights advocates critical of Chinese policies.
On its face, it appears that China is taking cyber-threats seriously, cracking down on hacker breeding grounds and those who traffic in malicious software. However, the sophisticated nature and scale of those recent cyberattacks suggests a level of technical competency that smells of state sponsorship, some security experts say. That is to say, those attacks likely weren’t carried out by amateur hackers buying lessons off the Web.
So were the users over at Black Hawk Safety Net a threat to cybersecurity? Or did the Chinese state use recent headlines to make a point to a tech-savvy portion of the populace that increasingly flouts rigid censorship rules and sidesteps the Great Firewall? That’s not to say this crackdown is not legitimate; the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology claims some 42,000 Web sites were targeted by hackers of varying competency last year, and it’s common knowledge that China is a breeding ground for malicious software and a launch pad for cyber attacks. But whether this as a serious Chinese effort to curb international cyber crime or simply window dressing designed to assuage the West in light of recent events is unclear.