'New York Times' The Target Of Chinese Cyber Attack

The New York Times says hackers in China infiltrated the newspaper's computer systems. The Chinese government closely watches and censors Chinese media reports about policy and officials but it is less able to do so with the foreign press. The attack on the Times may signal a tactic that can be used against foreign news organizations.

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The New York Times revealed today that it was the target of a month's long cyber attack. The paper believes the attack came from Chinese authorities in response to an expose of cronyism among China's ruling elite. The hackers were able to breach The Times entire system and swipe passwords for every employee.

As we hear from NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik, this cyber attack illustrates China's extreme distrust of the independent media.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Times Shanghai bureau chief David Barboza's expose hit the website on October 25th, the newspaper on October 26th, and the headlines followed all over the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The New York Times reports that Mr. Wen's family has controlled assets worth $2.7 billion.

FOLKENFLIK: That clip from CNN, just one of many international news outlets to cover the scandal. Lawrence Ingrassia is assistant managing editor at The New York Times, and edited Barboza's story.

LAWRENCE INGRASSIA: Deep dive into documents - public documents - which no body else had looked at and which were actually pretty hard to decipher. They were, you know, very embarrassing to the Chinese government, particularly to Mr. Wen, but we felt we needed to do it because that's what we do and that's what people here and in China need to know.

FOLKENFLIK: There were two almost immediate consequences. Chinese authorities blocked all access to the newspaper's new Mandarin language site from any computer inside China - a development that was widely reported and has happened to other news organizations previously.

The Times says its traffic to its Mandarin language site has plunged by about 80 percent since the authorities blocked it.

But, as Larry Ingrassia recounts, there was another telltale development, one not revealed until now. Its computer system had been comprehensively compromised. The paper had asked AT&T to monitor its computer system for any infiltration, as the story was released.

RICHARD BEJTLICH: It spiked the day it was posted online, October 25th.

FOLKENFLIK: In early November, The New York Times turned to a consulting firm that handles computer security called Mandiant for help. Richard Bejtlich is Mandiant's chief security officer. He says the infiltrators were clearly from China and had tricked a Times user into opening a malicious email.

BEJTLICH: They got some unauthorized software to run on that individual's computer. And that software allows someone who's sitting thousands of miles away to interact with that computer, as if they were sitting at it.

FOLKENFLIK: The hackers ultimately penetrated the computers of 53 employees at The Times. But the focus was on two reporters, David Barboza and his predecessor in Shanghai, Jim Yardley. Bejtlich says, the attack was highly focused.

BEJTLICH: It appears they were looking for any documents associated with the Wen family - resources, financials, that sort of thing.

FOLKENFLIK: The Times says no secret sources for the story were revealed. Ironically, the scoop largely relied on publicly available records rather than clandestine contacts.

Chinese officials have denied that their government had any involvement in the hacking. But officials at The Times say this represents the first time a foreign government has sought to breach their computer systems or succeeded in doing so.

Mandiant's Richard Bejtlich.

BEJTLICH: But to see the resources of a country like China going after a respected news organization, I see that as an abuse of power and, really, just an extension of Chinese government's lack of respect for human rights and freedom of the press.

FOLKENFLIK: It's worth remembering that the Chinese Communist ruling party only opened up to the West and the outside world in 1979. But the journalist and author Orville Schell says, the notion of the role of the media has not changed.

ORVILLE SCHELL: This was a designation made very early in the '40s by Mao. And in a word, it is that the media should be the megaphone of the party and the state. And that sort of underlying principle continues to today. And it collides rather relentlessly with the notion that we are accustomed to in the West, that the media is an independent kind of watchdog.

FOLKENFLIK: Schell says this tension plays out every day for foreign correspondents operating in China. He says these journalists know what stories will lead to a crack down.

SCHELL: We always know what the reaction is going to be. I think it does, in certain ways, influence what you say, because you're calculating your ability in the future to continue doing what you do.

FOLKENFLIK: In this case, Lawrence Ingrassia of The New York Times says it was the right call, and the paper would make it again.

INGRASSIA: We don't be intimidated. We don't worry that they shut down access to our website. We continue doing it and we hope and fervently believe that at some point they recognize that, you know, their country, their citizens, will be better off with the free flow of information.

FOLKENFLIK: The Chinese seem unfazed. CNN says its transmission was blocked in the country today for six minutes - during a six-minute segment on the hacking of The New York Times.

David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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