You might say that The New York Times was asking for trouble when it got into the business of reporting the truth about potentially corrupt Chinese leaders. And trouble is exactly what it got. Over the course of the past four months, the Grey Lady has been at the receiving end of a vicious attack by Chinese hackers who managed to steal the passwords of every single Times employee and access the personal computers of 53 Timesmen and women. The assault began on September 13 of last year, around the same time that reporter David Barboza was finishing up a hard-hitting report on Wen Jaibao, China's prime minister. And no, the timing was not a coincidence.
China has developed a nasty habit of hacking into media outlets' computer systems in an attempt to derail stories about its leaders. Before The Times, a group of Chinese hackers infiltrated Bloomberg News around the same time that it was working on a story about Xi Jinping, then vice president of China, and his rich relatives. Now, The Times reports that the assault on journalists has been going on since 2008 based on an investigation by Mandiant, the cyber security firm that the paper hired to help them figure out its own hacking problems last year. The Times asked AT&T to watch its back on October 24 after Chinese officials warned that reporting on Wen and his relatives would "have consequences." A day later, AT&T notified The Times that they'd spotted suspicious activity on the network. The paper let the hacking continue, as it worked on an investigation with Mandiant. After all, what a great story this whole affair could make!
All things considered, there wasn't really any harm done to The Times during the hack attack. Although employees' computers were breached, no information was stolen, and the paper certainly didn't suffer any catastrophic shutdowns. Barboza certainly got a scare, since he was specifically targeted as was Jim Yardley, The Times's former Beijing bureau chief and current South Asia chief in India. The attack gave the rest of the staff a nice reminder to be careful with their email, since the hackers gained access to The Times through a spear-phishing attack. Spear-phishing refers to a technique hackers user to break into a computer by sending an email with a malicious attachment or link that installs software that allows the hackers access to everything from files to keystrokes to screenshots to webcams.
The Times recently put a stop to the hacking, so now all that's left to do is figure out exactly who the culprits are. The Chinese military is a prime suspect, specifically because the hackers routed their attack through American universities, "the same university computers used by the Chinese military to attack United States military contractors in the past," says The Times. Of course, the Chinese military is denying the charge vehemently. "Chinese laws prohibit any action including hacking that damages Internet security," said China's Ministry of National Defense, adding that "to accuse the Chinese military of launching cyberattacks without solid proof is unprofessional and baseless."
At the end of the day, The Times got their big hacking story. China reminded us that it's up to no good. And we got a lot of anxiety about what's in our inbox.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.