China Holds Programmer in Alleged Computer Sabotage


A disgruntled computer programmer has reportedly confessed to planting a killer virus in thousands of copies of educational software in the Chinese capital’s first apparent case of serious hacker sabotage.

The programmer, Zhang Wenming, faces a possible jail term of up to five years for bugging software sold to schools throughout Beijing to prepare students for a national computer proficiency test, the official Beijing Youth Daily reported Tuesday. The virus was designed to act up on the 27th of each month and was meant to ultimately wipe out a host computer’s hard-disk drive.

Zhang is the first Beijing resident to be prosecuted under laws passed last year governing crimes relating to information technology. His case comes as Chinese authorities are increasingly turning their attention to tracking down hackers suspected of committing technological and even political crimes, often through the Internet.

In a closely watched case in Shanghai, a computer engineer named Lin Hai has been accused of fomenting political unrest through cyberspace by allegedly providing e-mail addresses to a dissident publication. Lin’s wife told the Reuters news agency Tuesday that her husband faces another court hearing today, more than a month after his trial opened. Lin, 30, has pleaded not guilty to subversion.


The stepped-up government efforts to control cyberspace follow an explosion in the number of China’s “Netizens” in the past few years: State statistics released over the weekend put the number of Chinese Internet users at 2.1 million, triple the 670,000 users registered in 1997. Experts believe that the real number of online Chinese is even larger because computer accounts are often shared by two or three people.

To keep out potentially “harmful” influences, Chinese authorities routinely block foreign news Web sites. Authorities are also worried about self-proclaimed “hacktivists” around the world who have vowed to tear down China’s crude cyberspace defenses. A Hong Kong-based human rights group reported this week that the government plans to set up computer crime investigation units in all of China’s cities.

Zhang’s case was cracked by one such investigative force, the information and communications department of Beijing’s eastern Chaoyang police precinct.

Local media described Zhang, 28, as a relatively uneducated but proficient “computer insect” who came to Beijing to work as a programmer from his hometown in Heilongjiang province. When his bosses at the Beijing Wuyou software company fired him because of his poor work habits, “he developed a grudge and resolved to wreak revenge,” the Beijing Youth Daily said.

Like a high-tech biology researcher, Zhang enjoyed collecting and cultivating computer viruses. To get back at his bosses, he took one such virus and infected about 20,000 copies of educational software that were then sold to area schools, the newspaper said.

When a suburban campus discovered problems with its system Dec. 27, school officials called in the authorities, who traced the contaminated software to Zhang. He was arrested Jan. 10 and confessed a day later, the newspaper said.

The infected software, which Beijing Wuyou promptly recalled, cost the company about $60,500. But the damage that the virus was programmed to incur “would have been unthinkable,” the Beijing Youth Daily said.