Spying row overshadows Merkel's visit to Beijing

Click to follow

Chancellor Angela Merkel flew to Beijing yesterday on a highly charged visit that was certain to be dominated by the embarrassing disclosure that scores of German government computers had been infected with Chinese People's Liberation Army spy programs.

Revelations about the extensive degree of China's computer espionage in Germany were published only hours before Ms Merkel boarded a plane for Beijing for a visit that was meant to be about climate change and the 2008 Olympic games.

Der Spiegel magazine disclosed that trojan spy software - disguised as PowerPoint or Word programs - developed by China's People's Liberation Army had been discovered in computer systems of the Chancellor's office and the German Economics, Foreign and Research and Development ministries.

Citing an investigation by German intelligence and the country's Federal Data Protection Office, it said Chinese computer hackers were using the programs mainly for wide-scale industrial espionage and revealed that computer spying forays against Germany were made almost daily from Lanzhou in north-west China, Canton and Beijing.

Ms Merkel refused to comment directly on the magazine's disclosures but gave a strong indication that computer espionage would be high on her Beijing agenda: "Germany is trying to ensure that its intellectual property is protected in its relations with China, I have asked that normal rules should apply," she told ZDF television.

A German Interior Ministry spokesman admitted that spying bugs had first been detected in government computer systems in May this year. He said the government immediately called in its data protection team, which had been able to prevent 160 gigabytes of material from disappearing. "No damage has been done." He insisted.

However, the spokesman refused to say where the trojans had originated. The Chinese embassy in Berlin said the reports about computer spying were " irresponsible speculation" and "completely unproven".

German computer experts dismissed the government's claims that "no damage" had resulted from the computer espionage. Der Spiegel quoted an unnamed senior German official who said that China had clearly been active before its spying programmes were discovered last May. " Nobody knows how much had been found out already," he said.

German politicians responded to the disclosures with dismay. Ruprecht Polenz, the conservative head of the government's foreign policy committee insisted: "This is no trifling offence, we cannot just sit back and ignore it, we need to be secure in the knowledge that this kind of thing does not reoccur."

Ralf Stegner, a senior member of Ms Merkel's Social Democrat coalition partners said: "If this information is genuine, the German government cannot accept this situation."