China launches cyber attack on New York Times

An American newspaper has revealed it was targeted by Chinese hackers after criticising the country’s Premier. Could cyber warfare touch every part of our lives?

The operation had all the ingredients of a military assault. Attackers went behind enemy lines, collecting vital information and undermining important systems. It took the opposing force months of tracking, strategising and building strong defences to finally expel the intruders.

But this was no ordinary war. The attack was launched on America’s most influential newspaper. And all the action took place on the internet.

Yesterday it was revealed that for the last four months The New York Times has been the victim of a sophisticated cyber attack. Hackers, thought to be from the Chinese military, targeted the paper in retaliation for an article about the wealth of Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao.

Experts think the intruders hid malware in email links: a technique called ‘spear-phishing’. One click was probably enough to give hackers access to reams of passwords, recordings and documents.

What was this virtual warfare trying to achieve? Editors feared that hackers might shut down the Times’ website. But the Chinese had a different target: the email accounts of Jim Barboza, who wrote the article about Wen. The aim, it seems, was to uncover the names of people that had given him information.

Such tactics are not unfamiliar. In 2010, Google was subject to a ‘highly sophisticated’ attack, originating in China, which sought details about human rights activists. Lawmakers, NASA and even Barack Obama have been subjects to Chinese hack attacks.

Such cases are the tip of the iceberg. Every day, global organisations are targeted by thousands of hacks that attempt to steal valuable information. Businesses that have invested years in research can lose millions to foreign companies that make off with data and sell it as their own.

The intrusions can be threatening. In 2009, Chinese hackers broke into a US defence firm, making off with 24,000 files of top secret information on an advanced fighter plane. Defending against the attack cost the firm dearly, in time and money. And two years later, China unveiled its own hi-tech weapon: another stealth fighter jet.

Final frontier

Even so, some say, it is better that enemies steal information about fighter planes than actually use them. And hacking can be used for good as well as ill: a targeted computer virus, for example, has already hobbled Iran’s nuclear programme. Hacking is inconvenient and economically troublesome, but it is better than blood being shed.

Maybe so, others reply. But that means governments are less concerned about their disagreements touching normal lives. The cyber frontier takes in everything from banks to businesses and even newspapers. If this conflict exposes every part of life to attack, it should be feared even more than conventional warfare.

You Decide

  1. Do you think cyber warfare will be a serious threat in the future?
  2. Would targeting a country’s business or media be an effective way to attack its government? Why?

Activities

  1. By continuing to produce articles that are critical of the Chinese government,The New York Timesmay increase its risk of being targeted in a cyber attack. But no one at the paper is likely to accept such threats influencing what the paper prints. Hold an ‘editorial meeting’ to discuss the problem.
  2. Write a short story based on what you think a world affected by cyber warfare might be like. Are the consequences of conflict irritating and low-level? Or deadly and dramatic?

Some People Say...

“The internet makes us more vulnerable than ever before.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Computers can’t hurt people!
Some would disagree. Iranian journalists working for the BBC in Britain, for example, were recently shocked to find Facebook pages that bore their names and pictures, but were full of false information. Hackers had hijacked their identities, creating fake pages in which they ‘confessed’ to sleeping around and making up articles. The aim was to discredit and intimidate the reporters, who had criticised the Iranian regime.
This couldn’t happen to me!
It’s unlikely. But all of us depend on the internet: if someone with unkind intentions gets hold of a password to your Facebook or bank account the results could be unpleasant. It is important to ensure your passwords are kept secret, and to be especially careful about clicking on suspicious emails.

Word Watch

Thought to be from the Chinese military
Although it is notoriously difficult to trace cyber attacks, a disproportionate amount have been found to come from China and Russia. It is not certain that attacks were carried out by governmental authorities of these countries, but there are strong signs they might be: several attacks targeting organisations hostile to governments have shared similar characteristics.
Wen Jiabao
Wen Jiabao is the second most important member of China’s ruling Politburo, after President Hu Jintao. In China he is known as ‘the People’s Premier’ and he has stressed the importance of tackling inequality, but The New York Times investigation revealed that his own family have a personal wealth of £1.7 billion.
Malware
A shortening of ‘malicious software’, this term covers all programs used by hackers to carry out harmful activities on another computer system. There are many types of malware, including viruses, worms, spyware and trojan horses.
Google
Google’s response was assertive. The company refused to continue censoring search results in mainland China (it had agreed to do so reluctantly, to comply with China’s strict media requirements) and eventually suspended operations on the mainland, moving its Chinese operations to Hong Kong.
Targeted computer virus
The Stuxnet virus infiltrated and damaged computer systems in Iran’s nuclear facilities, seriously delaying the planned progress of the country’s nuclear programme. It is thought to have been developed by the USA and Israel, in response to the suspicion that Iran was developing a nuclear weapon.

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