Computer-hacking charges mar German leader's visit to China

BEIJING — Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao told German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday that he viewed with "grave concern" a news report that hackers linked to the Chinese army had broken into the computer system in Merkel's office.

Over the weekend, Germany's Der Spiegel magazine reported that Chinese hackers — reportedly connected with the People's Liberation Army — had penetrated computer networks in Merkel's office and several ministries.

"When the Chinese government ascertained there were reports saying hackers were breaking into German government networks, we took it as a matter of grave concern," Wen said after a meeting with Merkel. "Hackers breaking into and sabotaging computers are a problem faced by the entire world."

Wen said China would cooperate closely with Germany to prevent hackers from operating across international borders.

Merkel, standing beside Wen at a news conference, didn't address the hacking report directly but urged China to respect international norms. She said she'd "expressed that in order to move relations forward . . . we must together respect a set of game rules."

China's Embassy in Berlin described the accusation of state-sponsored hacking as "irresponsible speculation without a shred of evidence."

Der Spiegel said in its Monday edition that Germany's domestic intelligence agency had discovered the hacking attempts against Merkel's office and the foreign, economy and research ministries in May.

The leak to Der Spiegel appeared timed to sour Merkel's three-day visit to China, her second as chancellor. She'll travel to Japan on Wednesday.

The weekly magazine said intelligence analysts suspected that Chinese hackers operating from Beijing, the northwestern city of Lanzhou and the southern province of Guangzhou had planted viruses to extract files from German computers. It said the hackers directed their attacks through computers in South Korea to disguise their origin.

It added that security officials had halted the theft of 160 gigabytes of data in the process of being siphoned off German government computers.

"Hacking is an international issue and China is also a frequent victim," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said in a statement Sunday on the German reports.

The Pentagon, in its annual report on China's military, said in May that the People's Liberation Army had "established information warfare units to develop viruses to attack enemy computer systems," beginning offensive exercises in 2005.

Hackers from China are known to have broken into U.S. government computers twice last year, penetrating State Department computers in July, then breaking into a bureau of the Commerce Department that controls technology exports in October.

"You get a lot of discussion coming out of the U.S. that China is building up its operations in information warfare," said David Wolf, a technology consultant in Beijing.

But Wolf said individuals could be behind the recent attack on German systems: "My bet is that it's a bunch of tech-savvy individuals."