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Patriotic hackers face off in South China Sea

Dispute over islands claimed by China and Philippines goes online

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The Philippine government has appealed in vain for patriotic hackers in the country to “be the bigger man” and not retaliate against China for a series of suspected attacks on university and government web sites, as the stand-off between the two countries over a set of disputed islands continues.

The Scarborough Shoal – also known as Panatag Shoal or Huangyan island – is claimed by China even though it is located just over 100 nautical miles from the Philipinnes.

Tensions over the territory reached boiling point earlier this month when Philipinne Navy officials tried to arrest Chinese fishermen for illegally fishing in the area, but were stopped when Chinese surveillance ships stepped in.

Soon after, various cyber attacks were launched at Philippine government sites, apparently from Chinese patriotic hackers.

The Department of Budget and Management website was forced offline for a “security audit” after being defaced on Wednesday, while the University of the Philippines web site was also hacked and defaced with a picture of the disputed islands named as belonging to China, according to local broadcaster GMA News.

Government spokesman Roy Espiritu told AFP that there have also been attempts at taking out government sites via DDoS attacks.

They are probing into different government domains so we can't say how many attacks there are. But it is a lot," he told the newswire. "The signatures [of the hackers] indicate they are from Chinese networks."

Despite calling for restraint from Filipino hackers, Espiritu’s words were apparently not heeded, with GMA News reporting that unspecified Chinese web sites have been defaced with messages that the islands belong to the Philippines.

“These skirmishes in cyberspace are unsanctioned by either government and are largely outbursts of public sentiment by private citizens from either country regarding the current situation,” science and technology secretary Mario Montejo is quoted as saying.

“It is our job in government to seek diplomatic solutions to these issues and not let them get out of hand.”

Patriotic hacking is nothing new, of course, and has been a frequent occurrence in the Middle East recently, especially during the Arab Spring uprisings, although the Chinese are thought to have taken it to a whole new level.

It’s widely believed in intelligence circles that the Chinese government secretly condones such attacks as long as they are in the national interest and are not directed at targets inside the country.

Most recently a civic referendum held in Hong Kong to highlight the illegitimacy of the SAR’s non-democratically elected leader was disrupted after two suspected pro-Beijing-ers launched a DDoS attack against the organisers’ web site.

One potentially positive outcome from the increased level of cyber crime in the region is that the Philippine government is reportedly getting serious about the matter.

GMA said it is currently working to create a special cyber security body and is in the middle of passing an anti-cyber crime bill. ®

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