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Hackers target Western news organizations in China

Journalists and executives at organizations including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal have been hit in cyber attacks. Chinese officials deny involvement.

February 01, 2013|By Michael Muskal and Jessica Guynn, Los Angeles Times
  • Over the last four months, hackers have managed to infiltrate the New York Times' computers, the newspaper reported Thursday. Above, the company's building in New York.
Over the last four months, hackers have managed to infiltrate the New York… (JUSTIN LANE, EPA )

More than 30 journalists and executives at Western news organizations in China, including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, have had their computers hacked, according to the news organizations and a security firm that monitors such attacks.

Over the last four months, the hackers managed to infiltrate the Times' computers, the newspaper reported Thursday. It said hackers had penetrated its computers and obtained passwords for reporters and other employees.

The hackers have been blocked and security tightened to prevent another attack, which followed an investigation by the paper into finances of relatives of Wen Jiabao, China's premier.

Mandiant Corp., a security firm brought into the case by the Times, said it found that hackers using techniques associated with the Chinese military stole emails, contacts and files from 30 journalists and executives and maintained a short list of journalists whose accounts have been repeatedly attacked.

That finding, first reported in the New York Times, was part of a December report that was expected to be made public soon, a Mandiant spokeswoman said Thursday.

The Wall Street Journal said that it too had been targeted by Chinese hackers.

Paula Keve, spokeswoman for the Journal's parent company, Dow Jones & Co., said: "Evidence shows that infiltration efforts target the monitoring of the Journal's coverage of China, and are not an attempt to gain commercial advantage or to misappropriate customer information."

Bloomberg News was targeted as well — after it published an article June 29 about the wealth of relatives of Xi Jinping, the current general secretary of the Communist Party and the person expected to become president in March. No computer breach took place.

"Our security was not compromised," Ty Trippet, a spokesman for Bloomberg, said Thursday.

"Newspapers and journalists are high-value targets," said James Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International studies. "They have really good sources, and they don't publish everything."

But they are just one target in many. Cyber-security experts say the United States has become increasingly vulnerable to foreign hackers who could target the nation's power grid, gas pipelines and other crucial infrastructure.

Those same hackers routinely and aggressively break into a wide range of corporate America's computers, including those of oil and financial companies.

Yet corporations have blocked legislation on Capitol Hill that would require higher standards to protect against breaches, saying it would be too costly and burdensome.

The full extent of how deeply hackers have penetrated into corporate America is not known. Companies are usually reluctant to talk publicly about attacks or to share information with the government.

"We know that every Fortune 500 company has had a problem, and probably every Fortune 1,000 company has had a problem too," Lewis said.

High-profile attacks like the ones that targeted Internet search giant Google Inc. three years ago may make it seem as if computer networks in the U.S. are under rising attack, but Lewis said networks are just under "sustained" attack.

"It's as bad as it can be. What's happening is that people are noticing it. That's a big change," Lewis said. "Four years ago nobody could spell cyber-security. Now everyone's waking up to the fact that the networks we depend on are totally insecure."

Cybersecurity experts said they are optimistic that the U.S. government is developing a cyber arsenal capable of repelling attacks.

Alan Paller, director of research at the SANS Institute, said the Defense Department has a growing ability to defend against sophisticated attacks — to protect crucial infrastructure and the Defense Department itself. It also has developed a "cyber offense," the ability to "project power" and to carry out sophisticated attacks itself, Paller said.

The hackers routed their attacks through computers at U.S. universities, according to the New York Times. Hackers installed malicious software that allowed them to enter the newspaper's computers. The software, known as malware, was "identified by computer security experts as a specific strain associated with computer attacks originating in China," the newspaper said.

Chinese officials denied they were responsible.

"Chinese laws prohibit any action including hacking that damages Internet security," China's Ministry of National Defense told the New York Times. It added: "To accuse the Chinese military of launching cyber attacks without solid proof is unprofessional and baseless."

Eileen M. Murphy, the Times' vice president for corporate communications, said Thursday the newspaper stood by the story.

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