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Depth of Cyber Attacks from Chinese Hackers on American News Outlets

by Xander Pakzad, published
Wikipedia Commons

News Outlets Report Cyber-Attacks from Chinese Hackers

Media outlets in the United States have begun revealing the extent to which their network security has been breached by China-based hackers. The New York TimesThe Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post all report recent intrusions by online attacks traced back to China. Tweet the news: Tweet

According to The New York Times, Chinese hackers have been attempting to break into the Times’ computer systems for 4 months. The digital attacks started almost immediately after a Times exposé on the finances of Wen Jiabao, China’s prime minister. The newspaper detected the malicious activity early, but silently let it transpire for 4 months in order to fully map out the pathways by which the hackers gained access.

The depth of the attack gave the potential to modify content or completely destroy the entire NYT computer network, but the intent of the breach was seemingly more surreptitious. Log-in information of 53 employees was retrieved and used to access personal home computers of journalists. Experts from Mandiant, the cyber security firm hired from the Times, traced the hack to information related to the Wen family report.

The Wall Street Journal’s security has similarly been breached, admittedly due to several stories published last year covering former Chongqing Secretary Bo Xilai's exile from the Communist Party. Rupert Murdoch announced via Twitter on Tuesday that these cyber-attacks, which started last year, are still ongoing:

The techniques used resemble those of previous Chinese cyber-attacks, including the use of identifiable malware and disguising the source by first channeling the attack through American universities. The hackers also installed remote access tools (RATs) to record keystrokes, passwords, and viewed documents.

Network-wide assaults have given way to the more covert "spear-phishing." These are ostensibly trustworthy e-mails sent to individual victims who then inadvertently give hackers access by opening an attachment or clicking a link.

Chinese officials and cyber law scholars have refuted claims that the government is behind the incidents, calling the allegations "baseless" and "irresponsible." In contrast to the American media's depiction of China, many officials of the country say they are the biggest victim of cyber-attacks.

China's national cyber security response team, CNCERT, found that just last year, over 14 million computers in China were exploited by overseas hacking and malware. Ten million of these attacks were from servers based in the United States. Tweet stat: Tweet

Still, CNCERT stops short of accusing the United States of cyber-espionage. Fang Binxing, telecommunications expert and creator of the "Great Firewall" of China, argues that tracking IP addresses of attacks cannot necessarily identify criminals.

Like the suspects in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal attacks, hackers often set up proxy servers in other countries, covering their trails and making it harder to determine the real source of the offense.

Two former U.S. officials say the Obama administration is preparing a National Intelligence Estimate, an evaluation of online espionage and the United States’ economy and diplomatic relations. Departing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last week:

"We have to begin making it clear to the Chinese  — they’re not the only people hacking us or attempting to hack us — that the United States is going to have to take action to protect not only our government’s, but our private sector, from this kind of illegal intrusions." Tweet quote: Tweet

Trade relations between China and the United States have suffered as the U.S. government is now more hesitant in doing business with China-based enterprises.

Last October, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence reviewed requests from Chinese telecommunication giants Huawei and ZTE to expand their presence in the United States. The Committee found that the companies failed to provide clear answers regarding their online practices and their relationship with the Chinese government.

In his upcoming book The New Digital Age, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt cautions that these cyber intrusions forecasts a restructuring of the Internet. Schmidt and co-author Jared Cohen, a former State Department advisor, predict a split between today's open, unrestricted Internet and the severely regulated versions countries like China are creating to filter content they deem inappropriate for their citizenry. Tweet at @ericschmidt: Tweet

Google also criticizes the United States' role in cyber warfare, such as the Stuxnet virus which targeted Iranian nuclear facilities in 2010, but they affirm that China is the origin of most global hacking. Schmidt has been a vocal critic of China since Operation Aurora, a high-profile online assault in 2009 that targeted several technology organizations and software developers.

The Chinese government has routinely blocked countrywide access to international media coverage of dissidents or stories that portray China in a negative light. If the allegations are true, these hacks may show China attempting to find and prosecute those who have leaked confidential information to overseas media. In recent years, Chinese law has heightened punishment for spreading sensitive data over the internet, both personal information and economic statistics.

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