Jenna Milburn-DiPasquale was working on the computer in her Orange County home office in June 2009 when she received an email from her father. There's nothing strange about that since she does all the marketing for her Santa Barbara-based dad's eight-person company, Solid Oak Software, best known for producing what we labeled in 1999 "the notoriously right-wing filtering-software program Cybersitter." What 39-year-old Milburn-DiPasquale did not know was the email was not from her father but the Chinese government.
In "Chinese Mafia-Style Hack Attack Drives California Firm to Brink," Bloomberg News' Michael Riley gives a fresh new look to the disturbing case several others previously covered. Brian Milburn, Milburn-DiPasquale's father, wound up filing a civil lawsuit against the People's Republic of China, yet in court he saw no Chinese lawyers and no court documents were filed by the Chinese government.
The voluminous case record at the U.S. District courthouse in Santa Ana contains a single communication from China: a curt letter to the U.S. State Department, urging that the suit be dismissed.
Milburn did get something, however: his computers hacked. That email mentioned at the top arrived in his daughter's inbox 12 days after he declared his intentions to sue China. She dutifully opened an attachment thinking it concerned a business matter. Actually, it contained hidden spyware. It was only later that Milburn-DiPasquale realized that original email address was off a couple letters and security experts traced it back to a team of Shanghai- based hackers that for years had been involved in sensitive national security-related breaches.
Once they were in, the hackers waged a three-year cyberwar against Solid Oak, whose crime in the eyes of Beijing was accusing the Chinese government of misappropriating Cybersitter software for a national Internet censoring project. Solid Oak's website randomly went down, email went undelivered, an employee was spied on through her webcam and company revenues sunk to the point of near-collapse.
Things go so bad that Milburn stopped drawing a salary, as did his daughter for a few months despite relying on two incomes with her chef husband. Worse than the lack of funds was the increase in fears. Milburn-DiPasquale did not want to quit as that would mean the hackers won, but her husband reportedly wondered if it was all worth it. Riley writes:
"He was saying, 'What are we up against? Is there going to be someone sitting outside the house?'" she says. Because she was working alone at home, he made sure the house alarm was on every day before leaving for work.
One investigating FBI agent likened the Chinese cyberwar to his brushes with the mob in Chicago. Milburn, who is 61, certainly believed these were organized crimes.
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"It felt like they had a plan," says Milburn, sitting in his office two blocks from Santa Barbara's main drag, where he's now focused on rebuilding his business. "If they could just put the company out of business, the lawsuit goes away. They didn't need guys with guns or someone to break my kneecaps."
Check out Riley's fascinating piece for all the rich details, but we won't let you sign off without this bit of happy news: the cyberwar seemed to end last April, when Milburn settled his $2.2 billion lawsuit against the Chinese government and a string of computer companies. And with the bad financial times behind her, Milburn-DiPasquale was recently able to buy a new computer, confiding to Riley, "I just wanted to tie the last one to an anvil and toss it in the sea."
Hopefully there's not a Red Chinese sub down there to fetch it.