Bahamas Minister of Tourism Obie Wilchcombe (L) on September 3, 2013, accepted a gift of Lenovo laptop computers on behalf of Bahamas Information Services from Hu Shan, China’s ambassador to The Bahamas. (BIS Photo/Patrick Hanna)
By Caribbean News Now contributor
PITTSBURG, USA — An announcement on Monday that a grand jury in the United States has indicted five Chinese hackers for cyber espionage and other offences directed at six entities in the US 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 US 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,” US Attorney General Eric Holder said.
The five Chinese hackers were each charged with 31 offences.
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 (AFR) 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 US National Security Agency (NSA) 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. Amongst regional governments that have received donated computers from China are:
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.
As recently as September of last year, the Chinese government supplied Lenovo laptops to the Bahamas Government Information Services.
In March 2013, the government of China donated laptops to all members of parliament in Barbados.
Received 30 desktop computers, six laptop computers and computer accessories last year, courtesy of the government of China.
The Royal Grenada Police Force has received a number of Chinese-supplied computers.
The Chinese government has so far supplied some 30,000 laptop computers for Guyana’s One Laptop per Family Initiative.
Trinidad and Tobago:
In 2011, the Trinidad government purchased some 17,300 Lenovo laptops.
The clandestine tampering of personal computers by intelligence services goes back to the infancy of such devices. Some 30 years ago, a blind eye was effectively turned to an illegal shipment of IBM computers to Cuba because the hardware had been “bugged” by US intelligence in order to spy on Cuban activity, something that to this day is still not widely known or discussed.
Of the government offices in 103 countries said by Canadian researchers to have been electronically infiltrated by the Chinese, how many are in the Caribbean?
Caribbean governments may be at risk from donated computers