Chinese Cyber Attacks Target Student Activist

Caught amid a clash of titans in which Google has pitted itself against China, Tenzin Seldon ’12 was informed earlier this year that her personal Gmail account had been compromised by a Chinese-based attack.

On Jan. 7, Seldon says she was contacted by University administrators who directed her to Google’s Chief Legal Officer and Senior Vice President, David Drummond.

“David let me know that my Gmail account had been breached, and he asked me for my permission to have my laptop scanned to see if there was any malware or spyware left behind,” said Seldon.

That same day, Google met with Seldon and took her laptop to run a series of tests.  Later, on Jan. 9, Google informed Seldon that no malware was found, meaning that the Chinese-based hackers had somehow obtained her Gmail password.  Seldon said that, according to Google, her account had been accessed on a routine basis.

In a post on the Official Google Blog entitled “A New Approach to China,” Google stated, “In mid-December, we detected a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China that resulted in the theft of intellectual property from Google. However, it soon became clear that what at first appeared to be solely a security incident–albeit a significant one–was something quite different.”

Dozens of other human rights activists along with many American businesses were targeted in attacks riddled with Chinese fingerprints.

Seldon’s primary role as a human rights activist stems from her involvement with Students for a Free Tibet, a global organization for which Seldon serves as the regional coordinator for the west coast.  Seldon is also the board of directors of “a huge coalition” called San Francisco Team Tibet, which organized the street protests when the Olympic torch passed through San Francisco.

“Since 2006 our organization, Students for a Free Tibet, started this campaign, No Luv 4 Google, which I think is significant to note, because we were the ones who told Google that if they go to China, they will only abet and aid the Chinese’s repressive policies against their own people,” said Seldon.

Contrary to several other reports, Seldon was not surprise to learn it was the Chinese who had hacked into her email account.  Seldon says that she encountered a similar problem during the Beijing Olympics — both her phone and email were breached, and several human rights websites she visited were defaced.

“I knew immediately that it was someone from China.  Since then, I’ve been extremely vigilant and cautious about opening files and what I do online.  Now, I’m even more cautious, and I make sure that I take every step to protect myself,” she said.

Seldon says she is not surprised that the Chinese would be interested in knowing what activities and events she has undertaken.  She lists three reasons why she believes she was targeted:  “First and foremost it’s because I’m an activist, and, second, I’m a Tibetan, and, third, is because of my affiliation with the movement here at Stanford to create awareness within some of the most intelligent and innovative change makers of our time.”

Born and raised in India, Seldon lived there as a refugee with her parents before moving to Minnesota.  Her parents fled Tibet in the 1960s to be closer to the Dalai Lama.  Although she’s never been to Tibet, she says that she feels that Tibet is the place that resonates with her most.

“It traces my heritage, and I believe in the Tibetan cause, because I think it’s a just one.  I believe in non-violent movement, and I believe that Tibetans inside are shut down and muted by the Chinese government, and I have to speak on their behalf,” said Seldon.

Also in the “A New Approach to China,” posting, Google stated, “We launched Google.cn in January 2006 in the belief that the benefits of increased access to information for people in China and a more open Internet outweighed our discomfort in agreeing to censor some results╔.  These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered–combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web–have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China. We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn╔.  We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China.”

About the uncertainty sourounding Google and China, Seldon stated, “I really hope that Google lives up to its word and withdraws from China completely if the Chinese government does not agree to Google’s position on censorship.”

Finally, Seldon says that she would like to see Stanford students get behind these kinds of issues and raise a greater level of awareness on campus.

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