Friday, July 31, 2015

German prosecutors investigate Internet journalists for treason

German prosecutors investigate Internet journalists for treason
Date 30.07.2015

The Federal Prosecutor General is investigating two German journalists suspected of treason for releasing confidential information online. Charges have been filed against the two reporters who run the blog, Netzpolitik.

Journalists Andre Meister and Markus Beckedahl (pictured above) were informed of the investigation on July 24. The two reporters published the official letter on the Netzpolitik website on Thursday.

The prosecutor's letter referred to two articles that were published on the blog in February and April. The reporters were believed to have quoted from a report by Germany's domestic intelligence agency which had proposed a new unit to monitor the internet, particularly social networks. The document had been categorized as "classified document- confidential."

According to German media, the Federal Prosecutor had called in a consultant to determine whether the publish document was, in fact, classified as a state secret. Officials also plan to look into the unnamed informants of the reporters.

If found to be guilty, the reporters could face at least one year in prison.

An attack on press freedom

"We are not witnesses, but as accomplices, we are as liable as our unnamed sources," the two journalists wrote. "It has been a long time since Germany acted against journalists and sources in such a manner."

German journalists union DJV condemned the move as an attack on the freedom of the press. The juridical process was "an inadmissible attempt to muzzle two critical colleagues," DJV head Michael Konken said, demanding that all investigations against Beckedahl and Meister be stopped.

Netzpolitik.org is one of the most popular German blogs and reports mainly on digital rights themes. Beckedahl and Meister have also won praise for their real-time reporting on the German parliamentary commission investigating neo-Nazi crimes committed by the NSU group.

The affair is reminiscent of similar investigations against the widely read news magazine "Der Spiegel" in 1962, when it published a report saying the German army, or the Bundeswehr, was incompetent to face a nuclear war. The magazine's journalists were also accused of treason at the time.


Chinese factory replaces 90% of humans with robots, production soars- defect rate cut 75%


Changying Precision Technology Company in Dongguan city has set up an unmanned factory run almost entirely by robots. The factory has since seen fewer defects and a higher rate of production.

By Conner Forrest July 30, 2015, 11:30 AM PST

The gravest fear that has rippled through humanity from the technology industry is that, someday, almost all of our jobs will be replaced by robots.

While that fear is often laughed off as something that will only happen far into the future, the truth is that it's actually happening right now.

In Dongguan City, located in the central Guangdong province of China, a technology company has set up a factory run almost exclusively by robots, and the results are fascinating.

The Changying Precision Technology Company factory in Dongguan has automated production lines that use robotic arms to produce parts for cell phones. The factory also has automated machining equipment, autonomous transport trucks, and other automated equipment in the warehouse.

There are still people working at the factory, though. Three workers check and monitor each production line and there are other employees who monitor a computer control system. Previously, there were 650 employees at the factory. With the new robots, there's now only 60. Luo Weiqiang, general manager of the company, told the People's Daily that the number of employees could drop to 20 in the future.

The robots have produced almost three times as many pieces as were produced before. According to the People's Daily, production per person has increased from 8,000 pieces to 21,000 pieces. That's a 162.5% increase.

The increased production rate hasn't come at the cost of quality either. In fact, quality has improved. Before the robots, the product defect rate was 25%, now it is below 5%.

Shenzhen Evenwin Precision Technology, also based in Dongguan, announced a similar effort in May 2015. This region of China is often referred to as the "world's workshop" due to the high number of factories located there.

The shift happening with automation has been in the works for many similar companies in the area for quite some time. Foxconn, the controversial manufacturer of many gadgets such as the iPhone and iPad announced its robot initiative back in 2011.

Dongguan is about an hour's car ride north of Shenzhen, which is widely regarded as one of the top regions in the world for gadget manufacturing. The growth of robotics in the area's factories comes amidst a particularly harsh climate around factory worker conditions, highlighted by strikes in the area. One can only wonder whether automation will add fuel to the fire or quell some of the unrest.

Some of the influx of robotics in the region is due to the Made in China 2025 initiative, and we will continue to see automation affect the area and potentially reduce the number of manufacturing jobs. Additionally, in March, 2015, the Guangdong government announced a three year plan to increase automation in the region by subsidizing the purchase of robots.

According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), electronics production was one of the biggest growth drivers for the sales of industrial robots. China was the largest market for industrial robotics in 2014 with nearly 60,000 robots sold.


Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Web-connected devices open digital peephole into lives...

Jul 29, 10:46 AM EDT

WILL THE INTERNET LISTEN TO YOUR PRIVATE CONVERSATIONS?
BY MICHAEL LIEDTKE AP TECHNOLOGY WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- Like a lot of teenagers, Aanya Nigam reflexively shares her whereabouts, activities and thoughts on Twitter, Instagram and other social networks without a qualm.

But Aanya's care-free attitude dissolved into paranoia a few months ago shortly after her mother bought Amazon's Echo, a digital assistant that can be set up in a home or office to listen for various requests, such as for a song, a sports score, the weather, or even a book to be read aloud.

After using the Internet-connected device for two months, Aanya, 16, started to worry that the Echo was eavesdropping on conversations in her Issaquah, Washington, living room. So she unplugged the device and hid it in a place that her mother, Anjana Agarwal, still hasn't been able to find.

"I guess there is a difference between deciding to share something and having something captured by something that you don't know when it's listening," Agarwal said of her daughter's misgivings.

The Echo, a $180 cylindrical device that began general shipping in July after months of public testing, is the latest advance in voice-recognition technology that's enabling machines to record snippets of conversation that are analyzed and stored by companies promising to make their customers' lives better.

Other increasingly popular forms of voice-recognition services include Apple's Siri assistant on mobile devices, Microsoft's Cortana and the "OK Google" feature for speaking to Google's search engine. Spoken commands can also be used to find something to watch on some TVs, and an upcoming Barbie doll will include an Internet-connected microphone to hear what's being said.

These innovations will confront people with a choice pitting convenience against privacy as they decide whether to open another digital peephole into their lives for a growing number of devices equipped with Internet-connected microphones and cameras.

The phenomenon, dubbed the "Internet of Things," promises to usher in an era of automated homes outfitted with locks, lights, thermostats, entertainment systems and servants such as the Echo that respond to spoken words.

It's also raising the specter of Internet-connected microphones being secretly used as a wiretap, either by a company providing a digital service, government officials with court orders or intruders that seize control of the equipment.

"We are on the trajectory of a future filled with voice-assisted apps and voice-assisted devices," Forrester Research analyst Fatemeh Khatibloo says. "This is going to require finding the fine balance between creating a really great user experience and something that's creepy."

Fears about Internet surveillance have heightened during the past two years as former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden released documents revealing that the U.S. government's terrorist-fighting programs have included mining personal information collected by a variety of technology companies.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center, a watchdog group, wants the Federal Trade Commission to set security standards and strict limitations on the storage and use of personal information collected through Internet-connected microphones and cameras.

"We think it's misleading to only present the potential conveniences of this technology without also presenting the huge number of possible drawbacks," said Julia Horwitz, director of the center's privacy project.

The FTC believes companies selling Internet-connected devices and apps should collect as little personal data as possible and quickly delete it once the information has served its purpose, said Kristen Anderson, an attorney with the commission's division of privacy and identity protection.

Amazon.com says Echo users don't need to worry about the device eavesdropping on them. As a safeguard, according to Amazon, the device's microphone is programmed to come on only after it's activated with the press of a button or the use of a certain word, such as Alexa, the name of the software that powers the Echo.

A blue light on the Echo also comes on when it's recording and remains illuminated when it's listening. Users can also select a sound to alert them when the Echo is recording. Amazon also allows users to review the recordings made by the Echo and delete any or all of them, although the Seattle company warns the device might not work as well without access to the audio history.

The Echo so far is getting mostly glowing reviews. It has received a five-star or four-star rating from about 90 percent of the roughly 23,000 reviews posted on Amazon.com.

Despite what Amazon says, Steven Combs has noticed the Echo's blue light illuminate at times when it hasn't been asked during the six months he has been using a test version of the device in his Columbus, Indiana, home. But he says he has never worried about being spied upon.

"Somebody would have to have a real interest in me, and I don't think I am that interesting for someone to come after my data," said Combs, the president of a community college.

Michael Feldman, 61, started to wonder about the Echo's snooping potential within the first few weeks after he set up the device in his home in Huntington Woods, Michigan. He frets about the possibility of government agencies using the Echo or similar devices as a surveillance tool, though that concern hasn't been enough to cause him to turn off the device's microphone.

"After you have lived long enough, you realize people will be willing to bring spying technology into their own house if they think it will do something great for them," Feldman said.

© 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.


Out of Shadows: New tech allows face recognition in utter darkness

Out of Shadows: New tech allows face recognition in utter darkness
Published time: 28 Jul, 2015 18:31

German researchers have developed a new technology that can identify a person in poor lighting or even in absolute darkness thus potentially solving one of the main issues of the modern face recognition systems.

Today’s facial recognition systems are based on matching clean and well-lit photos taken in the broad light. This poses a problem for law enforcement and security services when their object is in the shade.

However, a group of German scientists claim to have found a solution to this as they develop a new type of face-recognition system that analyzes a person’s thermal signature instead of relying on traditional methods.

As a part of the new study, Saquib Sarfraz and Rainer Stiefelhagen, two computer scientists from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Germany, created a system that analyzes mid- or far-infrared images and matches them with the ordinary photos thus allowing the people’s faces to be recognized.

However, such matching also poses a challenge for computer systems as connection between human appearance in visible and infrared light is highly nonlinear. The way human face emits thermal signatures when infrared images are taken is absolutely different from the way the face reflects light during a regular photo session.

Additionally, thermal emissions vary depending on the environment temperature, temperature of the skin, person’s activity level or even a change of expression.

Besides, the images taken by infrared cameras usually have much lower resolution than normal photos. All these factors make the matching of two types of images a challenging task.

The research team managed to overcome this difficulty by using the so-called deep neural network system.

Deep neural network is a computer system designed to imitate the functioning of a human brain. It can make connections and draw conclusions based on complex sets of factors provided that a large enough dataset is available for the system.

However, such smart system still needs a vast bank of both infrared and visible light images allowing it to make comparisons and “learn.” For their study, German researchers used the University of Notre Dame set that contains a significant number of both types of images, including people shot with different facial expressions, under different lightning conditions and multiple images of the same person over a certain time period.

The data set used in the study consisted of 4.585 both infrared and visible light images of 82 people. For the research, the scientists divided the set into two parts and used the images of the first 41 people to “train” their system and the images of the rest 41 people to test it.

The results of the experiment showed that the new system considerably surpasses its existing counterparts. “The presented approach improves the state-of-the-art by more than 10 percent,” Sarfraz and Stiefelhagen said as quoted by the MIT Technology Review.

Additionally, the system is capable of matching the images and recognizing a face in just 35 milliseconds. “This is therefore, very fast and capable of running in real-time at about 28 fps,” the researchers say.

However, the development of the technology is only at the initial stages so it is far from perfect as its accuracy reaches only about 80% in case when the system has many visible light images in its database to compare to the thermal image. With only one visible image available, the accuracy of the system falls to 55%.



Russians hackers used Twitter, photos to reach U.S. computers: report

Russians hackers used Twitter, photos to reach U.S. computers: report

By Joseph Menn July 29, 2015

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Russian government-backed hackers who penetrated high-profile U.S. government and defense industry computers this year used a method combining Twitter with data hidden in seemingly benign photographs, according to experts studying the campaign.

In a public report Wednesday, researchers at security company FireEye Inc said the group used the unusual tandem as a means of communicating with previously infected computers. FireEye has briefed law enforcement on what it found.

The technique, uncovered during a FireEye investigation at an unnamed victim organization, shows how government-backed hackers can shift tactics on the fly after they are discovered.

“It’s striking how many layers of obfuscation that the group adopts,” said FireEye Strategic Analysis Manager Jennifer Weedon. “These groups are innovating and becoming more creative.”

The machines were given an algorithm for checking a different Twitter account every day. If a human agent registered that account and tweeted a certain message, instructions for a series of actions by the computer would be activated.

The tweeted information included a website address, a number and a handful of letters. The computer would go to the website and look for a photo of at least the size indicated by the number, while the letters were part of a key for decoding the instructions in a message hidden within the data used to display the picture on the website.

Weedon said the communication method might have been a failsafe in case other channels were discovered and cut. Vikram Thakur, a senior manager at Symantec Corp, said his team had also found Twitter controls combined with hidden data in photos, a technique known as steganography.

FireEye identified the campaign as the work of a group it has been internally calling APT29, for advanced persistent threat. In April, it said another Russian-government supported group, APT28, had used a previously unknown flaws in Adobe Systems Inc.’s Flash software to infect high-value targets.

Other security firms use different names for the same or allied groups. Symantec recently reported another data-stealing tool used in tandem with the steganography, which it calls Seaduke. Thakur said both tools were employed by the group it knows as the Duke family.

Thakur said another tool in that kit is CozyDuke, which Russian firm Kaspersky Lab says is associated with recent breaches at the State Department and the White House.

(Reporting by Joseph Menn; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)


China-Tied Hackers That Hit U.S. Said to Breach United Airlines

China-Tied Hackers That Hit U.S. Said to Breach United Airlines
by Michael RileyJordan Robertson
July 29, 2015 — 2:00 AM PDT

The hackers who stole data on tens of millions of U.S. insurance holders and government employees in recent months breached another big target at around the same time -- United Airlines.

United, the world’s second-largest airline, detected an incursion into its computer systems in May or early June, said several people familiar with the probe. According to three of these people, investigators working with the carrier have linked the attack to a group of China-backed hackers they say are behind several other large heists -- including the theft of security-clearance records from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management and medical data from health insurer Anthem Inc.

The previously unreported United breach raises the possibility that the hackers now have data on the movements of millions of Americans, adding airlines to a growing list of strategic U.S. industries and institutions that have been compromised. Among the cache of data stolen from United are manifests -- which include information on flights’ passengers, origins and destinations -- according to one person familiar with the carrier’s investigation.

It’s increasingly clear, security experts say, that China’s intelligence apparatus is amassing a vast database. Files stolen from the federal personnel office by this one China-based group could allow the hackers to identify Americans who work in defense and intelligence, including those on the payrolls of contractors. U.S. officials believe the group has links to the Chinese government, people familiar with the matter have said.

That data could be cross-referenced with stolen medical and financial records, revealing possible avenues for blackmailing or recruiting people who have security clearances. In all, the China-backed team has hacked at least 10 companies and organizations, which include other travel providers and health insurers, says security firm FireEye Inc.

Tracking Travelers

The theft of airline records potentially offers another layer of information that would allow China to chart the travel patterns of specific government or military officials.
United is one of the biggest contractors with the U.S. government among the airlines, making it a rich depository of data on the travel of American officials, military personnel and contractors. The hackers could match international flights by Chinese officials or industrialists with trips taken by U.S. personnel to the same cities at the same time, said James Lewis, a senior fellow in cybersecurity at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“You’re suspicious of some guy; you happen to notice that he flew to Papua New Guinea on June 23 and now you can see that the Americans have flown there on June 22 or 23,” Lewis said. “If you’re China, you’re looking for those things that will give you a better picture of what the other side is up to.”

Computer Glitches

The timing of the United breach also raises questions about whether it’s linked to computer faults that stranded thousands of the airline’s passengers in two incidents over the past couple of months. Two additional people close to the probe, who like the others asked not to be identified when discussing the investigation, say the carrier has found no connection between the hack and a July 8 systems failure that halted flights for two hours. They didn’t rule out a possible, tangential connection to an outage on June 2.

Luke Punzenberger, a spokesman for Chicago-based United, a unit of United Continental Holdings Inc., declined to comment on the breach investigation.

Zhu Haiquan, a spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Washington, said in a statement: “The Chinese government and the personnel in its institutions never engage in any form of cyberattack. We firmly oppose and combat any forms of cyberattacks.”

Embedded Names

United may have gotten help identifying the breach from U.S. investigators working on the OPM hack. The China-backed hackers that cybersecurity experts have linked to that attack have embedded the name of targets in web domains, phishing e-mails and other attack infrastructure, according to one of the people familiar with the investigation.
In May, the OPM investigators began drawing up a list of possible victims in the private sector and provided the companies with digital signatures that would indicate their systems had been breached. United Airlines was on that list.

Safety Concerns

In contrast to the theft of health records or financial data, the breach of airlines raises concerns of schedule disruptions or transportation gridlock. Mistakes by hackers or defenders could bring down sensitive systems that control the movement of millions of passengers annually in the U.S. and internationally.

Even if their main goal was data theft, state-sponsored hackers might seek to preserve access to airline computers for later use in more disruptive attacks, according to security experts. One of the chief tasks of the investigators in the United breach is ensuring that the hackers have no hidden backdoors that could be used to re-enter the carrier’s computer systems later, one of the people familiar with the probe said.

United spokesman Punzenberger said the company remains “vigilant in protecting against unauthorized access” and is focused on protecting its customers’ personal information.
There is evidence the hackers were in the carrier’s network for months. One web domain apparently set up for the attack -- UNITED-AIRLINES.NET -- was established in April 2014. The domain was registered by a James Rhodes, who provided an address in American Samoa.

James Rhodes is also the alias of the character War Machine in Marvel Comics’ Iron Man. Security companies tracking the OPM hackers say they often use Marvel comic book references as a way to “sign” their attack.

Targeting Pentagon

This isn’t the first time such an attack has been documented. Chinese military hackers have repeatedly targeted the U.S. Transportation Command, the Pentagon agency that coordinates defense logistics and travel.

A report last year from the Senate Armed Services Committee documented at least 50 successful hacks of the command’s contractors from June 2012 through May 2013. Hacks against the agency’s contractors have led to the theft of flight plans, shipping routes and other data from organizations working with the military, according to the report.

“The Chinese have been trying to get flight information from the government; now it looks as if they’re trying to do the same in the commercial sector,” said Tony Lawrence, a former Army sergeant and founder and chief executive officer of VOR Technology, a Columbia, Maryland-based cybersecurity firm.

It’s unclear whether United is considering notifying customers that data may have been compromised. Punzenberger said United “would abide by notification requirements if a situation warranted” it.

The airline is still trying to determine exactly which data was removed from the network, said two of the people familiar with the probe. That assessment took months in the OPM case, which was discovered in April and made public in June.

M&A Strategy

Besides passenger lists and other flight-related data, the hackers may also have taken information related to United’s mergers and acquisitions strategy, one of the people familiar with the investigation said.

Flight manifests usually contain the names and birthdates of passengers, but even if those files were taken, experts say that would be unlikely to trigger disclosure requirements in any of the 47 states with breach-notification laws.

Those disclosure laws are widely seen as outdated. The theft by hackers of corporate secrets usually goes unreported, while the stealing of customer records such as Social Security numbers and credit cards is required in most states.

“In most states, this is not going to trigger a notification,” said Srini Subramanian, state government leader for Deloitte cyber risk services.


Tuesday, July 28, 2015

China Pushes to Rewrite Rules of Global Internet
Officials aim to control online discourse and reduce U.S. influence

By JAMES T. AREDDY
July 28, 2015 3:49 p.m. ET

SHANGHAI—As social media helped topple regimes in the Middle East and northern Africa, a senior colonel in the People’s Liberation Army publicly warned that an Internet dominated by the U.S. threatened to overthrow China’s Communist Party.

Ye Zheng and a Chinese researcher, writing in the state-run China Youth Daily, said the Internet represented a new form of global control, and the U.S. was a “shadow” present during some of those popular uprisings. Beijing had better pay attention.

Four years after they sounded that alarm, China is paying a lot of attention. Its government is pushing to rewrite the rules of the global Internet, aiming to draw the world’s largest group of Internet users away from an interconnected global commons and to increasingly run parts of the Internet on China’s terms.

It envisions a future in which governments patrol online discourse like border-control agents, rather than let the U.S., long the world’s digital leader, dictate the rules.

President Xi Jinping—with the help of conservatives in government, academia, military and the technology industry—is moving to exert influence over virtually every part of the digital world in China, from semiconductors to social media. In doing so, Mr. Xi is trying to fracture the international system that makes the Internet basically the same everywhere, and is pressuring foreign companies to help.

On July 1, China’s legislature passed a new security law asserting the nation’s sovereignty extends into cyberspace and calling for network technology to be “controllable.” A week later, China released a draft law to tighten controls over the domestic Internet, including codifying the power to cut access during public-security emergencies.

Other draft laws under consideration would encourage Chinese companies to find local replacements for technology equipment purchased abroad and force foreign vendors to give local authorities encryption keys that would let them control the equipment.

Chinese officials referred questions about Internet policy to the Cyberspace Administration of China, a recently formed government body. That agency declined to make an official available to comment for this article.

Such a strategy would have been impossible a few years ago when Western companies dominated the Internet. That has started to change with the rise of Chinese powers such as e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., online conglomerate Tencent Holdings Ltd. and information aggregator Sina Corp., which enable Chinese citizens to enjoy most services Westerners use, plus some unique to China, without needing Google Inc. or Facebook Inc. Chinese companies are easier for Beijing to control and have a history of censoring users upon demand.

The government is directing financial and policy support toward domestic firms that are developing semiconductors and servers that can replace ones provided by Western players. Earlier this year, Premier Li Keqiang unveiled Internet Plus, a strategy to incubate Chinese companies that integrate mobile, cloud and other types of computing with manufacturing and business.

Many Western companies are surrendering to Beijing’s rules so they can build a position in China, with an online population nearing 700 million.

LinkedIn Corp. structured its Chinese operation as a domestic company and agreed to censor content its customers see there. It said it respects freedom of expression but must comply with Chinese rules.

Hewlett-Packard Co., recently sold a majority stake in its China server, storage and technology services operations to a Chinese company after it came under political pressure in China following revelations that U.S. officials collected information abroad using infrastructure produced by American companies. A spokesman for H-P described the deal as a partnership formed to drive greater innovation for China.

Apple Inc. said in August 2014 it has been using the country’s primary Internet platform, run by state-controlled China Telecom, to store its Chinese users’ data. Apple says the data are protected by encryption.

China is seeking international validation for its efforts. Earlier this year, China led Russia and some Central Asia governments in proposing the United Nations adopt an Internet “code of conduct” that would effectively give every government a veto over technical protocols interlinking the global Internet.

China has argued such controls are necessary on national-security grounds, especially following allegations by former U.S. defense contractor Edward Snowden about American cybersleuthing. The code wasn’t adopted.

Some other countries share China’s vision of an Internet with borders. Turkey at times has temporarily blocked YouTube and Twitter. Russia has pressed U.S. social-media companies to erase content. The European Union’s top court ruled last year that search engines including Google must in many cases scrub links containing personal information from search results for individuals’ names upon their request.

“More and more countries are enforcing their own requirements,” says Rebecca MacKinnon, director of the Ranking Digital Rights Project for New America, a Washington think tank. “Nations enforcing their own Internet restrictions present a tension between national interests and participation in a global marketplace.”

China’s determination to promote an alternative to the borderless Internet embraced by Americans marks yet another way the country is challenging a U.S.-led world order under President Xi. It is asserting claims in the South and East China seas, building up its military, and setting up an Asian infrastructure bank to rival the U.S.-governed World Bank.

“In the next two decades, China will become the center of cyberspace,” predicts Fang Xingdong, a tech pioneer who a decade ago introduced blogging to China and now runs a Chinese technology think tank called ChinaLabs.

President Barack Obama and other U.S. leaders have called on Mr. Xi to curb controls that American officials say appear aimed at boosting Chinese companies or restricting freedoms, not at defending national security.

The Internet Association, a Washington-based trade group whose members include Google, Facebook and Yahoo Inc., says policy makers should advocate for U.S. tech companies in China and not accept restrictions.

“Global Internet companies born in the United States must have the opportunity to compete on a level playing field in China,” says Michael Beckerman, president of the association.

China’s push could backfire. By further constricting Internet freedoms, Beijing could alienate users and foster distrust of the government. It could also hold back China’s development by making it harder for businesspeople, doctors and scientists to access research and other tools that make the Internet a powerful force for innovation.

China’s approach marks an escalation from its original, defensive response to the Internet when it began spreading into China in the 1990s.

At the time, China built systems, collectively dubbed the Great Firewall, to filter Internet content entering China.

Services that gained popularity overseas faced outright bans in China, including Facebook and Twitter. In 2010, Google cited censorship and pulled its servers and some services out of mainland China. In recent years, many foreign publications have been blocked in China. The Wall Street Journal’s websites have been fully blocked since last year.

But as more Chinese became active online, censors struggled to keep up.

In July 2011, China’s public used social media to expose signs of official ineptitude after the deadly collision of two bullet trains, alarming leaders who were used to controlling information through state media.

China’s leaders also were growing uneasy about developments in countries like Tunisia and Egypt, where social media helped spread democratic passions that toppled governments. Reports that U.S. and Israeli cyberspies frustrated Iran’s nuclear ambitions with an Internet virus triggered further worries.

It was against this backdrop in mid-2011 that Col. Ye wrote that China needed to do more than simply block what it doesn’t like.

Calls for a more expansive Internet strategy picked up as Mr. Xi prepared to assume Communist Party leadership in 2012. Voices in government, academia and business pointed to China’s expanding know-how, which they said could dislodge U.S. technology from dominance.

Computer engineer Ni Guangnan gained fresh traction for a long-held position that Beijing should challenge U.S. software “monopolies,” as he described them. Credited with developing a method to input Chinese characters into computers in the 1980s, a breakthrough that helped him co-launch what is now Lenovo Group Ltd., Mr. Ni argued that imported technology is often unsafe—and replaceable.

Mr. Xi in early 2014 elevated the importance of Internet policy, taking charge of a newly formed Central Leading Group for Cyberspace Affairs and pledging to “build China into a cyberpower.” Little is known about the inner workings of the group, which includes top leaders, military and police chiefs, China’s central banker and telecommunication, science, broadcast and education regulators.

Mr. Ni’s call on the government to muscle out foreign technology appeared answered in May 2014 when Beijing prohibited use of Microsoft’s Windows 8 operating system on many government computers. Microsoft said it had taken steps to protect data for users but otherwise didn’t protest publicly.

China ramped up hacking and cyberwarfare capabilities, expanding the Third Department of the PLA’s General Staff Department, a cyberspying outfit estimated to have 100,000-plus hackers, linguists and others, according to Western intelligence experts.

U.S. investigators believe a recently disclosed breach of millions of employee records at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management originated in China. Beijing has denied involvement.

To translate China’s new Internet philosophy into day-to-day policy, the government tapped Lu Wei to head the Cyberspace Administration of China, set up to coordinate technology goals throughout the country’s vast bureaucracy.

The position makes Mr. Lu the nation’s primary online censor, even though the former journalist for state-run Xinhua News Agency began his career evading media controls. He recalled in an autobiography that when a China Southern Airlines flight in 1992 crashed with 141 people aboard, including his sister-in-law, he told white lies to get closer to the wreckage so he could photograph what local authorities worked to suppress.

Mr. Lu later developed business opportunities for Xinhua, sometimes by challenging foreign competitors with regulatory restrictions that he said were meant to address an “unfair information order.”

“The Internet is rife with problems, all of which are related to subjectivity, bias, imbalances and asymmetry of information dissemination,” Mr. Lu told a British audience in September 2013.

Under Mr. Lu, Beijing intensified pressure on Western media and on local activists and social-media users. He invited a number of the country’s most prominent users of a microblogging service called Weibo to dinner at a posh Western-style restaurant and warned them against spreading rumors, one attendee recalls.

That was followed by a series of detentions of popular Weibo users. Others became more timid about using the service. In February, the government announced new rules that require users to register real names and refrain from posting information that violates national interests.

This April, after complaining that Weibo users were spreading rumors harmful to the state, Mr. Lu’s office threatened to shut down services operated by Weibo parent Sina if it didn’t work harder to police content online. Sina executives quoted by Xinhua pledged to intensify censorship. Its service remains operational.

A 2014 Wall Street Journal survey found that Tencent was deleting popular accounts that sent political-news updates to users on its WeChat mobile messaging application. Tencent said it follows the law by targeting violent, pornographic and other illegal content.

Mr. Lu has lobbied for an expanded China role on Internet governing bodies such as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which assigns website addresses and is managed by the U.S. Commerce Department.

At a World Internet Conference organized last year by Mr. Lu’s office, he canvassed support for an Internet-sovereignty proposal. It included a nine-point manifesto, slipped under hotel-room doors of attendees, saying countries should have the right to govern Internet traffic within their borders.

Western delegates protested, and the manifesto was dropped, though similar language appeared in the proposal later submitted to the U.N.

Mr. Lu didn’t respond to questions for this article. He frequently has deflected criticisms of China’s tight controls by using a folksy expression: “It’s my house.”

Foreign-government officials and technology-industry executives say Mr. Lu’s office has led efforts to ensure that if Web giants outside China, including Facebook, want to tap China’s huge user base, they must operate through Chinese partnerships and infrastructure they don’t control. China is advising government agencies and banks to avoid mainframe servers from foreign suppliers such as International Business Machines Corp. and make do with more basic equipment from domestic companies like Inspur Group Co., a Jinan-based technology firm.

Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg met with Mr. Lu in December when the Chinese regulator visited the U.S. A much-debated question in Chinese technology circles is whether Facebook, to reach the world’s largest population, will allow itself to be regulated the same way Chinese Internet companies are.

Facebook has said it is interested in the China market but has made no decisions. It declined to comment about Mr. Lu’s visit, which included stops at other U.S. tech firms.

These days, after long denying it controlled the Internet beyond scrubbing social ills such as pornography, China’s government celebrates its strategy.

“The rising prominence of China is one of the most important developments shaping the Internet,” Xinhua said in a commentary last year. “Behind China’s Internet boom is Beijing’s unique way of management.”

—Jeff Elder in San Francisco and Yang Jie in Beijing contributed to this article.