Results of Hackers’ Work Threatens Press Freedom

Hacked off? You could be. Either with anger at unethical journalism and the backlash it could bring or more personally hacked, as described in Bloomberg BusinessWeek’s February 18 cover story: “Yes, the Chinese Army is Spying On You.”

First, the journalist hackers: Six more journalists who had worked for the defunct News of the World were arrested February 13 in connection with what Scotland Yard described as “new lines of inquiry” in its probe of phone hacking at the paper that has resulted in 32 arrests so far. Altogether, more than 100 reporters, editors, investigators, executives and public officials have been arrested in an investigation into possible criminal activity at British newspapers including allegations of bribing officials to obtain confidential information. The investigation has centered on two of Rupert Murdoch’s British tabloids: The Sun, a daily, and The News of the World, a Sunday publication closed as the scandal broke in July 2011. Murdoch’s News International has paid millions of pounds in damages to hacking victims. Backlash could bring legislation that would end more than three centuries of press freedom from statutory regulation.

On January 30, Nicole Perlroth reported for The New York Times that Chinese hackers infiltrated the company’s computer system in an attack that coincided with the October publication of an exposé on wealth accumulated by the relatives of Wen Jiabao, China’s prime minister. The hackers broke into the email accounts of David Barboza, the Shanghai Bureau chief who wrote the Wen report, and Jim Yardley, who is based in India as South Asia bureau chief and who had been Beijing Bureau chief. Security experts hired by The Times found evidence that the hackers stole the corporate passwords for every employee and used those to gain access to the personal computers of 53 employees, mainly journalists who work outside the New Yorknewsroom. The experts said the hacking techniques used were similar to those of the Chinese military. Also, Bloomberg News confirmed to The Times that it had been attacked after a June 29 report on the wealth accumulated by relatives of Xi Jinping, China’s vice president at the time.

After Bloomberg News and The Times published their Chinese exposés, their websites were blocked in China and they remain blocked.

In the two days after the Times said it was hacked, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post also reported they had been victims of Chinese cyberattacks. Then, Twitter, Facebook and Apple said they were hacked. It’s not just the Chinese. Bloomberg reported February 19 that those three companies were among at least 40 firms targeted in malware attacks linked to Eastern European hackers trying to steal company secrets.

Reporters Without Borders was among 45 groups that sent an open letter on January 24 asking Skype and its owner Microsoft to release information about user data it gives to third parties, including government agencies. Microsoft said it would consider the request. Other online companies, including Google and Twitter, release regular reports detailing requests for user data by third parties. “Many journalists or activists have reported to us that their Skype communications have been intercepted,” Grégoire Pouget of Reporters Without Borders told The Verge, a website that covers technology and society.

At a news conference about “Attacks on the Press” on February 14, Robert Mahoney, deputy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, described cyberattacks of journalists and news organizations as inexpensive and easy censorship. He cited the examples of The Times and major publications but said many lesser-known news organizations as well as individual journalists had been attacked.

At least 12 reporters working for foreign and local media in Myanmar, including a correspondent for The Associated Press, said in early February they received warnings from Google that their e-mail accounts might have been hacked by “state-sponsored attackers.”  Myanmar’s government denied that it was behind any hacking attempts. A Google spokesman confirmed the attacks but the company would not say how it determines an attack is “state sponsored” and would not identify a suspected government.

The BusinessWeek cover story on hacking by the Chinese Army was written by Dune Lawrence and Michael Riley. In a sidebar, Lawrence wrote that her laptop crashed while she was working on the piece. After she rebooted, a pink banner at the top of her Gmail in-box read: “Warning: We believe state-sponsored attackers may be attempting to compromise your account or computer.” Google would not comment on the alert or what triggered it.

Lawrence wrote: “Security experts can’t say it enough: There are very few places Chinese digital spies haven’t gotten into.”