Users of the China's most popular Internet search engine, Baidu, found the website inaccessible on the morning of January 12, 2010. The company later confirmed its website had been paralyzed by a cyber-attack. "The reason why Chinese users could not log on to the website was that our domain name server in the United States was illegally attacked," it said in a statement.
It's the second time the search engine has crashed as a result of an attack since its launch in 2000. Its servers were also attacked in December 2006.
In terms of suffering disruption as a result of hacking, Baidu is not unique among Chinese websites. In fact China has become one of the world's biggest victims of cybercrime.
Last year, the country was hit by nearly half a million cyber-attacks, half of which appeared to have originated from foreign countries, including the United States and India, according to a report issued by the National Computer Network Emergency Response Technical Team/Coordination Center of China (CNCERT/CC), the country's primary computer security monitoring network, on August 9.
China has the world's largest population of Internet users, topping 485 million as of June this year, according to statistics from the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC). The number is increasing at a rate of over 10 percent annually.
"However, Internet security in China is facing serious threats as various cyberviruses and worms continuously manifest themselves within China's cyberspace," said Zhou Yonglin, Director of the CNCERT/CC's Operations and Management Department.
Moreover, the lack of awareness about cyberattacks and necessary protection measures among the vast majority of Chinese Internet users is believed to make China more vulnerable to cyberattacks.
With the number of Chinese netizens soaring in recent years, China has become a prime target for hackers around the world. According to the CNCERT/CC's report, China suffered 493,000 cyberattacks last year, 14.7 percent of which came from Internet Protocol (IP) addresses located in the United States, and another 8 percent from addresses located in India.
Most of the attacks came in the form of malicious "Trojan" software used by hackers to gain access to target computers.
In many cases, the infiltration was initiated by an e-mail that triggered the download of malware; programs that allow hackers a backdoor communication channel to personal computers.
Meanwhile, the CNCERT/CC also detected 13,782 IP addresses with botnet, or corpse, viruses in 2010, of which 47 percent were receiving instructions from foreign countries, with the United States, India and Turkey being the top three countries of origin, according to the report.
However, due to the openness of the Internet, it is difficult to truly determine where the attacks are coming from, Zhou said.
"We cannot say for certain that the hackers were located abroad simply because their IP addresses were located in other countries," he said, adding that by the same token, CNCERT/CC couldn't say with certainty that hackers are based in China simply on the basis of IP addresses.
For example, hackers can implant control programs on computers outside their countries of origin using e-mails.
The CNCERT/CC report said that 4,635 Chinese government websites were tampered with by hackers last year, up 67.6 percent from a year earlier. It added that 60 percent of the websites of ministry-level government departments are at risk of being hacked.
In 2010, nearly 35,000 websites based in China were targeted by hackers.
"Many government websites were set up very quickly, and there are certain security risks that have been neglected because of poor management and design," Zhou said, adding that some hackers simply try to penetrate government websites to show off their skills.
"Hackers usually attack government websites for one of two reasons," he said. "Often their goal is to turn the homepage of government websites into that of their hacking group in order to draw attention to their existence and demonstrate what they are capable of. Sometimes, however, hackers hide their own pages on government websites in order to demonstrate that they have access to government servers, they then offer to sell the information on these servers to criminals."
The CNCERT/CC report also said hacking that tampers with Web pages is often politically or religiously motivated. Some government agencies' websites are often targeted by IP addresses that originate from Turkey, with hackers displaying texts and pictures intended for political and religious campaigns, it said.
The CNCERT/CC urged all Chinese government websites to boost their firewall systems and employ more qualified Web administrators.
Hackers love government websites because they are more vulnerable than commercial websites. This does not mean commercial websites are safe. Infiltration into the computer systems of Chinese companies in industries such as technology, finance, energy and transport is also on the increase, according to the report.
Domestic attacks, for example, mainly targeted financial institutions and online payment platforms. In these cases hackers hope to trick users into giving up their log-in credentials.