Both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal were hacked last week, and the incidents made headlines not because they were a big deal but because the press loves to talk about itself. In this case, the talk came in the form of some appallingly bad reporting.
The attacks themselves apparently don’t matter because the hackers–assumed to be Chinese, though I have yet to see any facts that substantiates this–didn't get any sensitive information. That's probably because these new sources have precious little sensitive information to be found. As The WSJ points out:
"Journal sources on occasion have become hard to reach after information identifying them was included in emails. However, Western reporters in China long have assumed that authorities are monitoring their communications and act accordingly in sensitive cases."
This fact did not prevent The Journal from running a story that implies something big happened. From that story:
"Chinese hackers believed to have government links have been conducting wide-ranging electronic surveillance of media companies including The Wall Street Journal, apparently to spy on reporters covering China and other issues, people familiar with the incidents said."
A WSJ article about something that happened at the WSJ can’t name the source of the information?!?! Whose identity is being protected and why?
The story later says these attacks have been going on for years. Newspapers are no different than any other businesses in this respect, so why are the hacks now news?
The Times tried to link the intrusion to its superb reporting about the finances of Chinese leaders:
"The timing of the attacks coincided with the reporting for a Times investigation, published online on Oct. 25, that found that the relatives of Wen Jiabao, China’s prime minister, had accumulated a fortune worth several billion dollars through business dealings."
Correlation isn’t proof, folks. But The Times does its damndest to make a circumstantial case against China:
- "The hackers tried to cloak the source of the attacks on The Times by first penetrating computers at United States universities and routing the attacks through them, said computer security experts at Mandiant, the company hired by The Times. This matches the subterfuge used in many other attacks that Mandiant has tracked to China."
- "The malware was identified by computer security experts as a specific strain associated with computer attacks originating in China."
- "More evidence of the source, experts said, is that the attacks started from the same university computers used by the Chinese military to attack United States military contractors in the past."
- "The attacks appear to be part of a broader computer espionage campaign against American news media companies that have reported on Chinese leaders and corporations."
- “Last year, Bloomberg News was targeted by Chinese hackers, and some employees’ computers were infected, according to a person with knowledge of the company’s internal investigation."
- "The mounting number of attacks that have been traced back to China suggest that hackers there are behind a far-reaching spying campaign."
- "Security experts said that beginning in 2008, Chinese hackers began targeting Western journalists." (Well, if unnamed security experts say so it must be true.)
- "On Oct. 25, the day the article was published online, AT&T informed The Times that it had noticed behavior that was consistent with other attacks believed to have been perpetrated by the Chinese military."
Unless The Times has figured out how to positively identify the source of a cyber attack, something no one else has done, not a single one of those claims is verifiable.
It is embarrassing that an article in The NYT makes so many accusations without facts to support them. The Journal story isn't any better. The only voice in the story that raises reasonable criticism of the allegations is a Chinese government spokesman:
"Cyber attacks are transnational and anonymous. It's very hard to trace the source of attack," he said. "To presume the source of a hacking attack based on speculation is irresponsible and unprofessional."
All three of those sentences are true but since we’ve been told China is behind the attacks his comment is already discredited.
It certainly wouldn’t surprise me to find out that China was indeed behind the attacks. However, the truth is that we do not know. In journalism to presume the source of anything "based on speculation is irresponsible and unprofessional."
(My deepest sympathies go to the reporters who got stuck writing these articles. There is nothing worse than writing a story about a news event involving your own newspaper. It is quite possible that the articles published bear little resemblence to the articles the reporters submitted to their editors. I have seen it happen many times under similar circumstances.)