BEIJING — A four-month-long cyberattack on the New York Times originating from China, detailed by the newspaper Thursday, may be part of a shift by Chinese hackers to apply the same sophisticated infiltration techniques against foreign media that they have used in recent years to steal proprietary data from U.S. and international corporations.
Other media organizations in Beijing also have experienced increased instances of cyberattacks and more sophisticated attacks, according to journalists in China who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. Later Thursday, the Wall Street Journal said its computer systems had been infiltrated by Chinese hackers apparently seeking to monitor the paper’s China coverage, calling it an “ongoing issue.”
“This is just the latest in a string of such incidents,” said Peter Ford, president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, which represents Beijing-based journalists, in a reference to the New York Times case. “In the past two years, a number of our members have reported repeated attempts to install malware on their computers.”
Ford said security consultants for the organization have said the attacks they have examined originated in China.
“But the Chinese authorities have never appeared to take these allegations seriously,” he said.
According to the Times article, security experts hired by the newspaper said the methods used in the attack have been associated with Chinese military hackers in the past. In response to a list of faxed questions Thursday, China’s Defense Ministry said: “The Chinese military has never supported any hack attacks. Cyberattacks have transnational and anonymous characteristics. It is unprofessional and groundless to accuse Chinese military of launching cyber-attacks without any conclusive evidence.”
A spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry sidestepped the question, saying, “The competent Chinese authorities have already issued a clear response to the groundless accusations made by the New York Times.”
For many reporters in Beijing, cyberattacks — such as attempts to infiltrate their computers, access their emails or clone their email addresses — have become a unavoidable part of the job.
“You assume it’s pervasive and that your email is read and phone calls are overheard,” said one reporter for a U.S.-based outlet. “On some level, it affects the way you work, what you put in emails, what you say over the phone. On another level, you can’t let it change too much.”
In the Times’ case, the hackers did not simply target its reporters in China but used sophisticated methods to try to crack the companywide infrastructure at the newspaper’s U.S. offices, according to the paper’s account. Similar methods have been applied in the past to defense contractors, tech companies and global corporations in a wide range of industries.
Although others companies may be having similar experiences, some journalists in Beijing said talking about it as publicly, as the Times has, is a complicated decision. Even capturing the scope of such a problem is difficult because companies in any industry often are reluctant to talk about cyber-intrusions to protect their corporate businesses and reputations, or to preserve continuing and necessary dealings with the Chinese government, or to avoid revealing to hackers more information about their security vulnerabilities.
“When you’re dealing with Chinese government, you have no idea whether being tough or nice works better,” one European journalist said. “They are constantly trying to hang the issue of visas over your head. They call you in to talk about your stories. It’s always a difficult decision whether to go public with problems or try to deal with them in private.”
The relationship between the Chinese government and the Times has been particularly contentious since the newspaper in October published an investigation into the wealth of Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s family. Its website, as well as Bloomberg News’ — which published a similar investigation on the family of China’s new leader, Xi Jinping — have been blocked for months. The Times’ new bureau chief, Philip Pan (a former Washington Post reporter) and incoming correspondent Chris Buckley have been unable to secure permanent visas and accreditation.
The blocking of the Times’ website sets back a new Chinese-language site launched last year to attract Chinese readers and advertising. The company invested a hefty sum to hire 30 to 35 journalists, translators and technologists.
The Times also had a rough relationship with the government after its coverage of the military’s confrontation with student protestors at Tiananmen Square in 1989, said one Chinese scholar.
“The relationship after the June 4 incident [in Tiananmen Square] did not ease up until five to six years later,” said Zhan Jiang, a professor studying foreign media at Beijing Foreign Studies University. “But I don’t think the Chinese government will be that angry this time. When the Chinese government considers their measures, they always do so in the context of the overall Sino-U.S. relationship. And the Sino-U.S. relationship is stable right now … so the tension may ease up in one or two years.”
Washington Post special correspondent Zhang Jie contributed to this report.