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China's final frontier

The Chinese are latecomers to space, and desperate to catch up. Two years after shooting down a sate

Dongfan Chung had lived in Orange County, California, for 45 years. The 72-year-old, known as Greg to his friends, led a quiet life with his artist wife and son. Quiet, that is, until dawn on 11 February 2008, when the FBI came to his home to arrest him on eight counts of espionage.

Chung, who had worked for Rockwell International and then Boeing - both companies involved in operating the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station for Nasa - is accused of sending confidential information on the US space programme to China over a 30-year period. His trial begins on 6 May. If convicted, he could face spending the rest of his life in jail.

What could have made him do it? The indictment issued by the District Court of California includes extracts from a letter Chung wrote in 1979 to a professor at the Harbin Institute of Technology in China: "I don't know what I can do for the country. Having been a Chinese compatriot for over 30 years and being proud of the achievements by the people's efforts for the motherland, I am regretful for not contributing anything . . . I would like to make an effort to contribute to the Four Modernisations of China."

A list found in Chung's possession showed the extent of the knowledge to which he had access; it included manuals on aircraft and space shuttle design as well as military specifications. It seems he would simply take documents out of the office, hide them at his home, and then travel to China to present the information, sometimes using his wife as a foil; he pretended on one occasion that they were going there at the invitation of a Chinese art institute. His hosts were grateful. Gu Weihao, an official of the ministry of aviation in Beijing, signed off a letter to Chung saying: "It is your honour and China's fortune that you are able to realise your wish of dedicating yourself to the service of your country." Chung was playing his patriotic part in the construction of the new China, ensuring the motherland gained that defining accessory of a great power: a space programme.

The country's space story begins, as the China National Space Administration white paper puts it, "50 splendid years" ago under Chairman Mao with the development of a ballistic missile programme. Over the next generation, space and nuclear research continued and expanded. By 2003, China became the third country, after the United States and Russia, to launch a manned mission into space; the first spacewalk by a Chinese astronaut took place last September. Footage of the event shows Zhai Zhigang waving a Chinese flag as he drifts against the black sky, attached by an umbilical cord to the Shenzhou VII spacecraft. The red flag catches the sunlight reflecting off the earth. Zhai's voice crackles: "My country, please have faith in me. I and my team will finish this mission."

Zhai became a national hero. He had shown the world how quickly China was progressing. In a speech shortly afterwards, the then Nasa administrator, Michael Griffin, acknowledged the achievement. "I personally believe China will be back on the moon before we are," he said. "I think that when that happens Americans will not like it. But they will just have to not like it."

Forty years on from Neil Armstrong's famed first steps, moon landings still capture the imagination. They give countries geopolitical status, prized membership of an elite club. But China's lunar aspirations tell only half the story. All space research develops technology that can have civil or military uses - satellites, for example, can monitor weather patterns or troop movements. The lack of distinction between the two in China causes the US "quite a bit of concern", according to Jing-dong Yuan, director of the East Asia Non-proliferation Programme at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. There is, he says, "no organisational separation between the civilian and military" parts of the Chinese space programme. Other space-faring nations, such as the US or India, make the division institutionally clear, but in China the whole show is run by the People's Liberation Army. As Yuan says: "The Chinese military understands that modern warfare depends on how you use space."

No wonder the case of Greg Chung prompted a strong reaction. Ken Wainstein, then assistant attorney general for US national security, warned of "the threat posed by the relentless efforts of foreign intelligence services to penetrate our security systems and steal our most sensitive military technology and information". It was, he said, "a threat to our national security and to our economic position in the world". Says Alan Paller, a cyber security expert who advises the US government: "We're talking about the equivalent of the following thing happening at every major defence organisation: a guy is walking into the building, copying files and taking them away. They're not taking 25 files, or 50 files, they're taking millions of files."

In a report to Congress last November, the United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission claimed that there are about 250 organised hacker groups tolerated and possibly encouraged by the Chinese government. In one year, China was said to have downloaded between 10 and 20 terabytes of data from US government and contractor websites (roughly the equivalent of all the text in the British Library). So what is Beijing doing with it all? Catching up, for one thing. As Yuan says, the Chinese were “latecomers” to space and they want to avoid reinventing the wheel. But the apparent scale of the espionage campaign is making the Americans anxious. Chris Shank, until recently director of strategic communications at Nasa, drops his voice when asked about its effect: “It’s deeply disconcerting . . . They know that we know what is going on and they know it’s hurt relations.”

Beijing dismisses the commission's report as "unworthy of rebuttal". At the time of its release, the foreign ministry spokesman, Qin Gang, was defiant. "The commission always sees China through distorted colour spectacles, and intentionally creates obstacles for China-US co-operation through smearing China deliberately and misleading the general public," he said. The official line is that China "is unflinching in taking the road of peaceful development, and always maintains that outer space is the common wealth of mankind".

Alan Paller, for one, doesn't buy it. He has no qualms about saying that China and the US are in an "arms race", pure and simple. Observers in Washington point to the first Gulf War as the moment when the Chinese realised that developing sophisticated technology in space was synonymous with being a major military power. They watched how the Americans used satellite systems for all aspects of warfare - navigation, communications, imagery and early missile attack warnings - and realised that if they were to have any hope of matching US military weight they would need to shape up in space. The Chinese were also being realistic. They knew that closing the gap with the US in conventional military force was impossible. But US dependence on space systems was what Yuan calls their "soft rib". If the Chinese could develop the capability to threaten the US 500 miles above the earth, it wouldn't matter how many tanks they had.

That capability was made dramatically apparent when, in January 2007, a "kinetic kill vehicle" was propelled into space from a base in the remote Sichuan Province. Travelling at 18,000 miles an hour, it successfully hit its target, a Chinese weather satellite. It took almost two weeks for the Chinese to confirm they had done it, despite the international outcry over the "weaponising" of space. "There's no need to feel threatened about this," said their foreign ministry spokesman at the time. To anyone outside the space business, China blowing up one of its own weather satellites doesn't seem like such a big deal. But a China expert and analyst for US defence organisations, Dean Cheng, says that "it made pretty much everyone think differently".

It was, if you like, another Sputnik moment. When the Soviets launched the first artificial satellite into orbit in 1957, they demonstrated an ability that worried the US. Sputnik showed that the Soviets could use ballistic missiles to carry nuclear weapons from Europe to the US. The Chinese anti-satellite test was, similarly, a muscle-flex. For a start, it hadn't been done since the last US exercise in 1985. More importantly, it proved that if the Chinese wanted, they could take out satellites at will. It was, according to Scott Pace, former associate administrator at Nasa and now director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, a "surprisingly dirty" move. Dirty in all senses: a cloud of debris from the collision now stretches hazardously for hundreds of miles in space.

Pace, Shank and many other American ­Establishment observers studiously avoid talking of a new space race. So do the Chinese. After the anti-satellite test, they insisted that their intentions were innocent: “Neither has China participated, nor will it participate in an arms race in outer space in any form.” In any case, according to Pace, China is years behind – “roughly in the mid- to late-Sixties period” – in the technology it is creating. He refers to the Chinese space programme, and that of the other emerging giant, India, with a kind of avuncular benevolence. The United States “would be happy to see them on the moon”, he says, yet still he is wary. “There are aspects that look benign, and there are aspects that look worrisome . . . There’s not a lot of insight into who everyone is and how decisions are made.”

This seems to be an understatement. Cheng says no one "had a clue" what was going on when the 2007 anti-satellite test happened. The Chinese are not forthcoming about their space programme; no one was willing to be interviewed for this article. When Michael Griffin went on the first official Nasa trip to China's space facilities in 2006 he didn't get anywhere near a launch site. In his version of events, it was like "a first date, if you will", each side coyly sizing up the other. Others saw it as a clear message from the Chinese that there are aspects of their space programme which are not for sharing.

The stakes could be very high. Yuan believes it is not inconceivable that there could be war at some point between China and the United States, possibly provoked by US support for Taiwan's democratic system, a policy that has long riled Beijing, which insists the island is part of China. The new Taiwanese government has improved relations but, says Yuan, "the problem has not been solved . . . [The Chinese] still have to prepare for a potential conflict."

What this conflict might actually look like is a question that intrigues John Sheldon, an ebullient professor at the US air force's graduate school for air and space power strategy in Alabama. "When I'm teaching US officers I tell them, 'Whatever you imagine space war is going to look like, you're wrong. Darth Vader, Star Trek - get it out of your head . . .'" Instead, he says, it will be "very real, and at the same time rather subtle and mundane", because nobody actually knows how a space war might start, or if we would even know that it had. It could be the jamming of a signal to a satellite, or a software virus that disrupts enemy communications. Or it might simply be "six guys who hide in the bushes and eat snakes for two weeks and kick down the door of your ground station". Either way, "We'll be looking over our shoulders and wondering, 'What the hell happened there?'"

A deterioration in Sino-US relations is in nobody's interests. On a visit to Beijing at the start of last month to commemorate 30 years of diplomatic ties between the two countries, the former US president Jimmy Carter described their bond as being the most important relationship in the world today. Many observers hope that the new president will handle that relationship differently from his immediate predecessor, whose administration's anti-Chinese sentiment one insider characterised as "visceral".

For their part, the Chinese clearly want President Barack Obama to sit up and listen: they released their latest defence white paper describing (though somewhat opaquely) their nuclear capability on the day of his election. Even before he entered the Oval Office, however, Obama's transition team was talking to the Pentagon and Nasa about speeding up production of new military rockets. Recent reports speculate that Obama might merge the two organisations' space programmes - a move that, paradoxically, would mimic the Chinese arrangement. Like it or not, this space race is on.

timeline: the long march into space

    1958 Tiuquan, China's first satellite launch centre, is founded

    1966 The country tests its first guided nuclear missile

    1970 Launch of the first Chinese satellite, the Dong Fang Hong I

    1987 The Chinese become involved in the international space industry, providing services for the European aerospace manufacturer Aérospatiale-Matra

    1990 China launches its first communications satellite

    1992 The Chinese officially begin the country's manned space flight programme

    1999 The first unmanned space flight completes its 21-hour voyage

    2001 The US unilaterally withdraws from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. China's muted response ignites fears of a new space race

    2003 Launch of China's first manned mission, making it the third country to send a man (Yang Liwei, pictured below) into space

    2007 China shoots down an old satellite using anti-ballistic missiles, prompting warnings in the US of a future "star wars"

    2008 Dongfan Chung is indicted for passing US space secrets to the Chinese government

    2008 The former fighter pilot Zhai Zhigang carries out China's first ever spacewalk

Kate Ferguson

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 09 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Revolution 2009

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They know where you live

Imagine your house being raided by armed police. That’s what happened to Mumsnet’s Justine Roberts after she fell victim to an internet hoaxer.

At around midnight on Tuesday 11 August 2015, a man dialled 999 to report a murder. A woman had been killed in her London home, he said, before hanging up without offering his name. A second call followed. This time, the man claimed to be the killer. He told the operator that he had now taken the woman’s children hostage at the Islington address. They were locked with him inside a room in the house, he said. The police responded with reassuring speed. Fifteen minutes later, eight officers, five of them armed with automatic weapons, accompanied by saliva-flecked dogs, arrived at the scene and took up position in neighbouring front gardens. When one officer banged on the front door of the house, the team was greeted, moments later, not by a masked murderer but by a blinking and bewildered au pair.

Justine Roberts, the woman whom the caller claimed to have killed, was in fact nearly 2,000 kilometres away – in Italy, holidaying with her husband and children. After explaining this to the police, the au pair called Roberts, who assumed that the incident was an unfortunate misunderstanding, one that could be unpicked after the vacation. It was no mistake. Roberts had been the victim of “swatting”, the term given to a false emergency call designed to bait an armed unit of police officers to storm someone’s home. It wasn’t until a few days later, as the family was preparing to return to London, that Roberts discovered that she had been the target of a planned and sustained attack, not only on her household, but also on her business.

Roberts is the founder of Mumsnet, the popular British internet discussion forum on which parents share advice and information. A few days before the swatting incident, members of 8chan, a chat room that prides itself on being an open, anonymous platform for free speech, no matter how distasteful, had registered accounts on Mums­net with the aim of trolling people there. When legitimate Mumsnet users identified and then ridiculed the trolls, some retreated to 8chan to plot more serious vengeance in a thread that the police later discovered. Roberts wasn’t involved in the online skirmish but, as the public face of the site, she was chosen as the first target.

After the initial armed response, Roberts’s perception was that the police were unconcerned about the swatting attack. “We were told that there was no victim, so there was not much that could be done,” she told me. The hoax caller, however, was not finished. In the days after the incident, there was chatter on Mumsnet and Twitter about what had happened. A Mumsnet user whom I will call Jo Scott – she requested anonymity for her own safety – exchanged heated messages with a hacker who claimed responsibility for the 999 call.

“It descended into jokes and silliness, like many things do,” Scott said. “I didn’t take it seriously when the hacker said he had big surprises in store.” She doesn’t believe that what happened next was personal. “I think I was just easy to find.”

A few days after police were called to Roberts’s home, Scott was in her bedroom while her husband was sitting downstairs playing video games. At 11pm, she heard a noise outside. “I looked out of the window and saw blue flashing lights in the street,” she recalled. “I could hear shouting but I didn’t pay it much notice.” Then she heard her husband open the front door. Police rushed into the house. An armed officer shouted upstairs, asking Scott if she was hurt. When she replied that she was fine, he told her to fetch her two young children: he needed to see them. Scott shook her sons awake, explaining, so as not to alarm them, that the police had come to show the boys their cars. As the three of them went downstairs, the officers swept up through the house, repeatedly asking if there were any weapons on the property.

“I was beyond confused by this point,” Scott said. “Everyone was carrying a gun. They had little cutaway bits so you could see the bullets. My eldest asked one of the officers if he could have a go on his gun and went to touch it.”

As Scott sat with an officer downstairs, she asked what had happened to her husband. “I later found out that the noises I’d heard were the police calling for him to come outside,” she said. “He dropped the PlayStation controller as he left the room. It was only later that we realised it’s a good job he did: in the dark, the controller might have looked like a weapon.”

Outside, Scott’s husband had been surrounded and arrested. Other police ­officers were on the lookout in the front gardens of nearby properties, having warned the couple’s neighbours to stay indoors, away from their windows. “One of the officers said it was beginning to look like a hoax,” Scott said. “Then he mentioned swatting. As soon as he said that word, I twigged that I’d seen the term that day on Twitter in relation to the Mumsnet hack.”


The term “swatting” has been used by the FBI since 2008. “Swat” is an acronym of “Special Weapons and Tactics”, the American police squads routinely called to intervene in hostage situations. It is, in a sense, a weaponised version of a phoney order of pizza, delivered as a prank to a friend’s home, albeit one that carries the possibility of grave injury at the hands of police. For perpetrators, the appeal is the ease with which the hoax can be set in motion and the severity of the results. With a single, possibly untraceable phone call, dialled from anywhere in the world, it is possible to send an armed unit to any address, be it the home of a high-profile actor whom you want to prank or that of someone you want to scare.

In America, where swatting originated, the practice has become so widespread – targets have included Tom Cruise, Taylor Swift, Clint Eastwood and the Californian congressman Ted Lieu – that it is now classed as an act of domestic terrorism. In the UK, where Justine Roberts’s was one of the first recorded cases, swatting is classed as harassment, though that may change if these and other forms of internet vigilante attacks, such as doxxing, become increasingly commonplace.

Doxxing involves the publication of someone’s personal details – usually their home address, phone numbers, bank details and, in some cases, email address – on the internet. It is often the prelude to swatting: after all, the perpetrator of a hoax cannot direct the police to the target’s home address until this is known. (During the week of the Mumsnet attacks, one of the perpetrators attempted to locate another target using their computer’s IP address, which can identify where a person is connected to the internet, often with alarming precision. Their calculation, however, was slightly out; police were called to a neighbour’s address.)

Though doxxing has a less dramatic outcome than swatting, the psychological effects can be just as severe. For victims – usually people who are active on the internet and who have outspoken opinions or who, in the eyes of an internet mob, have committed some kind of transgression – the mere threat of having their personal information made available on the web can cause lasting trauma. A Canadian software developer whose home address, bank details, social security number and email history were published online in 2014 told me that he now keeps an axe by his front door. “I still don’t feel safe here,” he said. “It’s terrifying.”

Christos Reid, a social media manager for a software company, was doxxed last year. Reid’s information came from a website he had registered seven years earlier. “I woke up one morning to find a tweet announcing my personal details,” he told me. When he asked the Twitter account holder to take down the address, he was told to commit suicide. Reid said he was “OK for about half an hour”; but then, after he went out, he broke down in the street. “I’ve become more paranoid,” he said. He no longer gives out business cards with personal information.

Reid lives in London, but at the time of the doxx he was attending an event in Nottingham, home to the British police’s largest cybercrime division. He was impressed with the police response, even though they told him that they had not heard of the term “doxxing” before. “I was interviewed by two separate people about my experiences who then compiled everything into a case file and transferred it to the Met. When I arrived home, an officer visited me to discuss what happened and my options.”

The policeman explained harassment law to Reid, and offered advice on how to improve security at his flat and what to do if someone hostile turned up at the address. Reid shouldered the repercussions of what had happened alone; no suspects were identified. A spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police similarly said that although detectives from Islington CID have investigated the swatting attacks made on Roberts and Scott, no suspects have been identified “at this time”, even as “inquiries continue”.

Doxxing may seem to be a mild form of harassment but it carries with it an implicit threat of impending violence; the worrying message is: “We know where you live.” Unlike swatting, which is always malicious, doxxing is sometimes viewed by its perpetrators as virtuous. In November 2014, hackers claiming to be aligned with the internet group Anonymous published personal information allegedly belonging to a Ku Klux Klan member from Missouri. The hackers said that their action was a response to the KKK’s threat to use lethal force against demonstrators in the city of Ferguson, Missouri, protesting against the killing of the unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer. In January 2015 hackers claiming to be from Isis took over US Central Command’s Twitter account and posted information about senior military officers, including phone numbers and email addresses. In each case, those carrying out the doxxing believed, however mistakenly, in the virtue of their actions and hoped that the information could be used to bring punishment or ruin to the subject.

The term “doxxing” may be new but the practice is an old one. The Hollywood blacklist revealed the political beliefs and associations of actors and directors in the late 1940s as a way to invite shame, deny employment and dissuade others from following their example. “But it has become a lot easier to find people’s private details with the help of the internet,” Jeroen Vader told me. Vader owns Pastebin, a website that allows users to upload and distribute text documents, and where much of the personal data is anonymously uploaded and shared. “People post their private information on social networks,” he said. “A lot of people aren’t aware that their information is so easily available to others.”

In Justine Roberts’s case, the perpetrator may not even have needed to look at social networks to mine her personal information. “If you’re on the electoral roll, you’re easy to find,” she said. “There’s not much you can do to stop people getting hold of your data one way or another, whether it’s for nefarious reasons or simply to better advertise to you. We live in a world that is constantly trying to gather more information about us.”

Jeroen Vader said he has noticed an “upward trend” in the number of doxxing posts uploaded to Pastebin in recent months, but insisted that when someone uses the site’s abuse report system these offending posts are removed immediately.

Across social media companies, action is more often reactive than proactive. Victoria Taylor, a former director at Reddit, one of the largest community-driven websites in the world, said that the rule against publishing other users’ personal information has been “consistently one of the site’s most basic policies” and that “any violation of this rule is taken extremely seriously by the team and community”. Still, she was only able to recommend that victims of doxxing send a message to the site’s administrators. Similarly, when asked what a person can do to remove personal details that have been published without permission, a Twitter spokesperson said: “Use our help form.”

The spokesperson added: “There has def­initely been an overall increase in doxxing since 2006, both on Twitter and on the internet more generally.” She attributed this rise to the emergence of search engines such as Intelius and Spokeo, services designed to locate personal information.


The surge in the number of dox­xing and swatting attacks is in part a result of the current lack of legal protection for victims. Confusion regarding the law on doxxing is pervasive; the term is even not mentioned in either US or European law. In a tutorial posted on Facebook in 2013, the writer claims: “Doxxing isn’t illegal as all the information you have obtained is public,” and adds: “But posting of the doxx might get you in a little trouble.”

Phil Lee, a partner in the privacy, security and information department of Fieldfisher based at the law firm’s office in Silicon Valley, said that differing privacy laws around the world were part of the problem. “Various countries have laws that cover illegal or unauthorised obtaining of data. Likewise, some of the consequences of releasing that data, such as defamation or stalking, cover elements of what we now term doxxing. But there is no global law covering what is a global phenomenon.” Indeed, Roberts believes that her London address was targeted from America – the 999 call was routed through a US proxy number.

One challenge to creating a law on doxxing is that the sharing of personal information without permission has already become so widespread in the digital age. “If a law was to state something like, ‘You must not post personal information about another person online without their consent,’ it wouldn’t reflect how people use the internet,” Lee said. “People post information about what their friends and family members have been doing all the time without their consent.

“Such a law could have a potentially detrimental effect on freedom of speech.”

Lee believes that a specific law is unnecessary, because its potentially harmful effects are already covered by three discrete pieces of legislation dealing with instances where a person’s private information is obtained illegally, when that information is used to carry out illegal acts and when the publication of the information is accompanied by a threat to incite hatred. However, this does not adequately account for cases in which the information is obtained legally, and then used to harass the individual in a more legally ambiguous manner, either with prank phone calls or with uninvited orders of pizza.

Susan Basko, an independent lawyer who practises in California and who has been doxxed in the course of her frequent clashes with internet trolls, believes that the onus should be on the law, rather than the public. She points out that in the US it is a crime to publicise information about a government employee such as their home address, their home and cellphone numbers, or their social security number, even if the information is already online. “This law should apply to protect all people, not just federal employees,” she said. “And websites, website-hosting companies and other ISPs should be required to uphold this law.”

Basko said that doxxing will continue to increase while police have inadequate resources to follow up cases. For now, it is up to individuals to take preventative measures. Zoë Quinn, an American game designer and public speaker who was doxxed in 2014, has launched Crash Override, a support network and assistance group for targets of online harassment, “composed entirely of experienced survivors”.

Quinn, who spoke about the problem at a congressional hearing in Washington, DC in April last year, recently posted a guide on how to reduce the likelihood of being doxxed. “If you are worried you might some day be targeted,” she wrote, “consider taking an evening to stalk yourself online, deleting and opting out of anything you’re not comfortable with.”

Both Scott and Roberts have changed their privacy habits following the attacks. Scott is more careful about interacting with strangers online, while Roberts uses scrambler software, which ensures that she never uses the same password for more than one online site or service.

For both women’s families, the effects of their encounters with armed police have also lingered. When one day recently Roberts’s husband returned home early from work, the au pair called the police, believing it was an intruder. And Scott is haunted by what happened.

“What if my husband had made a sudden move or resisted in some way? What if my eldest had grabbed the gun instead of gently reaching for it? What if people locally believed that my husband did actually have guns in the house?” she asks. “I don’t think the people making these sorts of hoax calls realise the impact.” 

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism