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'Sad that China is intimidated by a 20-year-old'

By George Joseph
February 04, 2010 20:42 IST
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Google's statement that it would leave China if it continued with censorship has placed India-born Tensin Seldon, an activist with Students for a Free Tibet, as a major player in the controversy. But the 20-year-old Stanford student is happy that the controversy has brought attention to the Tibetan problem.

In January, university officials asked Seldon to contact Google because her Gmail account had been hacked. She contacted David Drummond, Google's chief legal officer, who informed her that her account was hacked by someone in China. Google asked to examine her laptop. They found no virus or malware in it but indicted that someone in China too was logged into her account when she accessed her account Google did not reveal the names of other activists whose email accounts were hacked. It was reported earlier that the Dalai Lama's computer was also hacked.

Google said it found that the Gmail accounts of Chinese and Tibetan activists had been compromised in separate attacks involving phishing and spyware. The New York Times quoted independent security researchers, who said that at least 34 corporations had been targets of cyber attacks originating in China. Adobe said it had been the victim of an attack, but said it did not know if it was linked to the hacking of Google.

In India, M K Narayanan, the former national security advisor, alleged that China tried to hack computers at the prime minister's office, a charge which China denied.

"I can only speculate that the reason they compromised my e-mail account is because of my involvement with the freedom movement with Students for a Free Tibet. The fact that they are willing to put these many resources into monitoring us, that shows that we are being effective activists for Tibet and that our action is making a difference and is noted in China," Seldon told

"That the long arm of Chinese security could reach all the way to my home here at Stanford is something I never would have suspected. It's very disturbing when your Gmail account, which is as personal as it gets, can be hacked into and breached," she said.

Seldon said she does not know any other activist whose computer was hacked into. She was born and raised in Dharamsala, India. Her family moved to the US when she was young. She went to high school in the San Francisco's Bay Area.

She appreciated the principled stand of Google at least in this issue. "Taking this stance is definitely a bit of a gamble. Google could lose revenue in one of the largest Internet populations, however, they are doing the ethical thing that could encourage China to give more freedom to its people and other minorities in places like Tibet," she said.

"Google has taken a stance, that it will not comply with laws that violate basic human rights and freedom. It is now living up to its motto, 'don't be evil.'"But they were not happy when Google went to China with a self-censored serach website

A Google search from outside China for 'Tiananmen Square' will show tanks and bloodshed, while will show flowers and sunshine. "I must also add that in 2006, Students for a Free Tibet warned Google that partnering with the Chinese government would not lead to greater Internet openness. In fact, instead of changing China for the better, Google became a partner in censoring and distorting information. Access to information is a critical tool to Tibetans struggling for human rights and freedom. I hope Google will uphold its decision not to censor search results on," she said.

The laptop may have been infected with a sophisticated form of malware programmed to harvest and relay back Gmail passwords, before erasing itself from a user's hard drive. Seldon has been involved with the case of Dhondup Wangchen, a Tibetan filmmaker who was imprisoned by the Chinese government after making a documentary about Tibet. Her parents were Tibetan farmers who fled to India after China's annexation of Tibet. "It is sad that the Chinese government is intimidated by a 20-year-old," she said.

She plans to go into politics later in life. "I am a Tibetan. If I don't speak on their behalf, who will?"

"Tibetan activists have become all too familiar with these attacks in recent years. During the March 2008 uprising in Tibet, we experienced a marked increase in the volume and sophistication of email and other cyber-based attacks designed to collect information and to impede our work," Nathan Dorjee, Students for a Free Tibet's technology advisor, said.

'In mid-December, we detected a highly sophisticated attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China. What at first appeared to be solely a security incident—albeit a significant one—was something quite different,' Drummond wrote on his blog.

Image: Tensin Seldon
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George Joseph in New York