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US cyberspying fears hang over Beijing Olympics

Dithers over threat level

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US paranoia about Chinese computer hackers has created a diplomatic dilemma about whether or not to warn visitors and business people traveling to next month's Beijing Olympics about cyber-security risks.

Last month the department of Homeland Security privately warned government and key private-sector contacts of the cyber-security perils facing overseas travelers from foreign governments. Spying techniques outlined in the advisory, which wasn't made public, included copying the contents of laptop hard disks at border crossing or in hotel rooms and "loading spyware" onto BlackBerry mobile devices, the Wall Street Journal reports.

The advisory does not single out any country, but the timing of the alert, two months before the Beijing Olympics and shortly after allegations emerged that a US Commerce secretary's laptop was hacked during a December trip to China, are noteworthy.

Some businesses, such as General Electric, already issue guidance on how to minimise cyber-security risks, such as leaving laptops behind or using a dedicated travel laptop with an encrypted hard drive.

Terrorism and health risk are highlighted by state department notices but there's no equivalent alerting systems for cyber-security threats. Technology experts and government officials have been locked in an arm wrestling match about whether or not to publicly issue advisories in the run up to the Beijing Olympics for months, a unnamed member of a national intelligence task force told the WSJ.

Chinese officials said concerns that visitors to the games would be faced with running a gamut of electronic espionage attacks were baseless. "Allegations that China supports hacker attacks against U.S. computer networks... are entirely fabricated, and seriously misleading," a spokesman for China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs told the WSJ.

In related news, US presidential candidate Barack Obama unveiled his cybersecurity strategy last week which included plans to fight corporate espionage and the creation of a role for a national cyber-security adviser. ®

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