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Diary of a Chinese military hacker: More like ‘The Office’ than James Bond

The building housing “Unit 61398” of the People’s Liberation Army is seen in the outskirts of Shanghai, Tuesday Feb. 19, 2013. Cyberattacks that stole information from 141 targets in the U.S. and other countries have been traced to the Chinese military unit in the building, a U.S. security firm alleged Tuesday. According to the report by the Virginia-based Mandiant Corp., it has traced the massive amount of hacking back to the 12-story office building run by “Unit 61398”, and that the attacks targeted key industries including military contractors and companies that control energy grids. China dismissed the report as "groundless."(AP Photo)
AP Photo
The Shanghai building that is home to the hacking division “Unit 61398.” Somebody’s working overtime.
By Gwynn Guilford
AsiaPublished Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

This great profile of a one-time Chinese military hacker in the Los Angeles Times makes one thing clear about China’s military cyber hacking unit: It ain’t exactly Mission: Impossible.

Here’s a rundown of the soul-crushing tedium—based in part on a blog written by a hacker named Wang—that any cubicle-dwelling worker drone would recognize:

The pay is lousy. Wang complained constantly about how little he made, particularly compared to his private-sector former classmates, and appeared to earned only enough to cover his expenses. The LA Times also highlights how cached evidence suggests that Wang’s colleague, Mei Qiang, posted ads online offering to write Trojan viruses for money (pdf, p.58).

The location, hours, and perks all suck. The hackers lived in a dorm on the distant outskirts of Shanghai, where they wore military uniforms, worked overtime and sustained themselves on instant noodles. The opportunities for distraction were minimal. “They should at least take us young people into consideration,” wrote Wang. “How can passionate young people like us handle a prison-like environment like this?”

Your boss cheats on his expenses, but won’t approve yours. Wang’s boss expensed a $100 bottle of liquor—a popular form of gift given to advance business relationships—while he was denied reimbursement for a $1 bus ticket to attend a conference.

You get punished just for trying to do a good job. Hackers commonly use phishing emails to invade their targets’ computers. And in order to get a native English-speaker to open your email, is has to be Chinglish-free. So Wang tried to spiff up his language by reading The Economist and Harvard Business Review—only to have his boss chide him for spending too much time reading foreign papers.

You have to toe the company line. As Time recently detailed, the Chinese government censored the personal blog of an unofficial Chinese hacker named Wan Tao, and ordered him to delete xenophobic posts when it needed to quell the 2005 anti-Japan riots. After 20 hours of deleting comments, Wan was hospitalized for exhaustion.

These last points are a reminder that it’s not merely run-of-the-mill bureaucracy that makes the life of a Chinese military hacker so humdrum. These hackers have mastered the open networks that depend on the free exchange of information—exactly what the Chinese Communist Party wants to keep under wraps. In that sense, the party’s ideological rigidity is probably its biggest weakness—as these hackers’ accounts show, it eventually starts to chafe. It’s telling that Wang’s favorite pastime was watching the US television “Prison Break.”

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

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