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That revelation was delivered by whistle-blower Edward Snowden, until recently a contractor for the National Security Agency. He emerged from hiding Wednesday to grant an interview to Hong Kong's South China Morning Post.
"We hack network backbones -- like huge Internet routers, basically -- that give us access to the communications of hundreds of thousands of computers without having to hack every single one," he told the Post.
According to NSA documents reviewed by the Post, which haven't been verified, targets of the NSA's Prism program have included computers in both mainland China and Hong Kong. People targeted included systems at Hong Kong's Chinese University, as well as government officials, businesses and students in the region. But the Post reported that the program didn't appear to target Chinese military systems.
[ Security standoff at recent U.S.-China summit: Read U.S.-Chinese Summit: 4 Information Security Takeaways. ]
According to Snowden, he learned of at least 61,000 such NSA hacking operations globally. The Post didn't specify whether those operations all allegedly occurred since 2009.
Why go public with the NSA's alleged hacking campaign? Snowden said he wanted to highlight "the hypocrisy of the U.S. government when it claims that it does not target civilian infrastructure, unlike its adversaries."
"Not only does it do so, but it is so afraid of this being known that it is willing to use any means, such as diplomatic intimidation, to prevent this information from becoming public," he said.
Snowden first arrived in Hong Kong May 20, and said that the choice of venue wasn't accidental. "People who think I made a mistake in picking Hong Kong as a location misunderstand my intentions. I am not here to hide from justice, I am here to reveal criminality," he said, noting that he planned to stay until "asked to leave." Noting that the U.S. government had already been "bullying" Hong Kong authorities into extraditing him, Snowden said that he would legally fight any such attempt.
How will Hong Kong handle Snowden's case? "We can't comment on individual cases," Hong Kong's chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, told Bloomberg Wednesday. "We'll handle the case according to our law."
Hong Kong is a special administrative region of China, and Beijing could influence the government's legal thinking. But when asked in a Thursday press conference if the Chinese government had received any requests from Washington related to Snowden's case, Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for China's foreign ministry, said only: "We have no information to offer," reported The Hindu in India.
Snowden previously said he would prefer to "seek asylum in a country with shared values," and named Iceland. Asked to respond to a spokesman for Russian president Vladimir Putin recently saying that were Snowden to apply for asylum in his country, authorities would consider his request, Snowden replied: "My only comment is that I am glad there are governments that refuse to be intimidated by great power."
Snowden said he hadn't contacted his family since leaving the country, but feared for both their safety as well as his own. He also appeared disinclined to glorify what he'd done. "I'm neither traitor nor hero. I'm an American," he said. "I believe in freedom of expression. I acted in good faith but it is only right that the public form its own opinion."
How has China reacted to Snowden's revelations that the NSA is spying on the Chinese? Chinese foreign ministry spokewoman Hua said in a regular press conference Thursday that the government has been following the revelations of NSA monitoring detailed by Snowden, and she repeated calls from the Chinese government -- agreed to in principle at last week's U.S.-China summit in California -- to launch a cybersecurity working group to increase "dialogue, coordination and cooperation" between the two countries.
"We also think adoption of double standards," she said, "will bring no benefit to settlement of the relevant issue."