Hacking the new standover tactic

Last updated 13:55 04/02/2013

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OPINION: Journalists are on notice. If you investigate the Chinese government, Chinese hackers will come after you.

That's what you should conclude from the disclosure by The New York Times that it was hacked for four months by attackers it suspects were associated with the Chinese military.

The likely motive, the Times said, was retaliation for the newspaper's investigation into the wealth amassed by the family of China's Premier, Wen Jiabao.

This was not the first time Chinese hackers had attacked journalists. They infiltrated Bloomberg News last year, the Times reported. They have also gone after the Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal and other Western media.

The outcome might be chilling: now that a Chinese attack on The New York Times is international news, any dissident or potential whistleblower in China will be wary of talking to journalists. In other words, the hack worked.

The attack on The New York Times points out why cyber-attacks are such an effective weapon, especially when aimed at journalists.

The Times was quickly on to the hackers as the paper had expected a response to its investigation, and AT&T, which had been monitoring the paper's network, alerted the Times to a potential hack on the day it published the Wen investigation.

But anticipating the hackers would come in response to the Wen Jiabao expose did not really help the Times - the hackers still managed to obtain the corporate passwords of every one of its employees and broke into the PCs of 53 of them. They also infiltrated the email accounts of two reporters who cover China, including David Barboza, who conducted the investigation into Mr Wen's family.

Unfortunately, security experts said, the Times could not be sure the hackers were gone, nor that they did not find anything of value.

Until now, a government or criminal enterprise had two options if did not like something a reporter had written - it could shut down the outlet or kill the journalist. Hacking presents a third option, one that is far more nuanced and effective.

It is anonymous and China can maintain plausible denials.

The hackers can get what they want - a reporter's sources, information about how a news outlet works and who to cozy up to, perhaps personal information that could be helpful for blackmail - all without anyone finding out.

Hacking crosses borders. In the past a foreign paper would have been more protected from Chinese governmental repercussions than a local paper. Not any more. Now hackers can get you anywhere, and they can make life hell for everyone you work with.

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Finally and most importantly, hacking is almost impossible to defend against.

Journalists have to use computers and the internet. If they do that, they are opening themselves to attack.



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