By Andrew Scoggin
Call it “Scoop-ception,” if you know what I mean.
The New York Times reported late Wednesday night that Chinese hackers had “persistently attacked” the paper since October, obtaining passwords and “infiltrating” its computer networks. The activity stemmed from a previous NYT story about relatives of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao that had amassed a fortune worth billions of dollars.
It’s a big news story, but it does come across oddly, particularly in this breaking news alert the paper sent out at 9:30 p.m. Eastern Wednesday.
It wouldn’t be the first time a newspaper, including the Old Gray Lady, wrote about itself. Often news organizations will report on shakeups or personnel changes, including canned (aka pre-prepared) quotes from higher-ups.
This hacking story is along those lines — considering no one has access to the NYT like the NYT — but the implications make it much different. This isn’t some fluff piece about a promotion or a positive earnings report.
The NYT, like it or not, is a paper of record not only for the United States, but for the world. People generally trust them to tell us what’s important and uncover society’s grave offenses. When their ability to do that is hampered, we all lose.
But in addition to that, these reported attacks are an affront to our sovereignty and one of our most fundamental rights, particularly if the Chinese government is involved. Per the First Amendment, we all have the freedom to report the truth without bounds from any government authority, provided we don’t do anything illegal. Someone in China didn’t like that truth and tried to silence it.
The brunt of the hacks, the NYT said, did not try to shut down the paper’s website (hackers were particularly active Nov. 6, the night of the U.S. general election). Rather, it seems the attackers wanted to find the sources behind the Wen story. And if they could silence those sources, further stories on Wen or other Chinese officials could be harder to report.
If the Chinese government really is involved (and the evidence points to it), this NYT story is distressing. They’ve moved beyond cyber warfare against governments and down to private citizens. China has voiced its displeasure with American companies previously, including Twitter, Google and Facebook.
But this is not censorship within China’s borders. This NYT hacking suggests it could happen to anyone, anywhere who says or reports not-so-nice things about China.
For instance, someone in the Chinese party leadership could come across this article and decide it’d be best to silence us (not that we have the same influence as the NYT). We run WordPress — our system wouldn’t be too hard to infiltrate. Passwords could easily be found, emails easily traced. Our electronic lives could be made very, very difficult.
(That’s not an invitation to go snooping around, mind you.)
The NYT hacking isn’t the first of its kind. The paper reported Chinese hackers tried the same against Bloomberg News last summer after it published a story about wealthy relatives of Xi Jinping, the presumed next president of China. They were not as successful as against the NYT, a Bloomberg spokesperson said.
Evidence also points to repeated Chinese spying attempts against other non-governmental entities in the U.S., the NYT said. Not that China is the only country to engage in hacking, U.S. included.
Now, if they figure out how to hack dreams like in the movies, then we’re really in trouble.
Update (4:00 p.m. Thursday): The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Chinese hackers targeted their computer systems, too. Greaaaaat.