The New York Times has claimed that it was victim of repeated attacks on its computer systems by Chinese hackers after it began an investigation into the business dealings of the Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.
The paper said the hacking attacks, which involved infiltrating its computers and obtaining the passwords of its reporters and other staff, coincided with its October investigation into Mr Wen having accumulated a fortune of several billion dollars through his business dealings.
The publisher brought in computer security experts which he said had uncovered hacking methods previously associated with the Chinese military. Among the individuals targeted was the New York Times Shanghai bureau chief David Barboza, who had written stories about Mr Wen’s relatives, and Jim Yardley, the paper’s former Beijing bureau chief, who had moved to a new post in India.
The paper claimed that its responses to the hacking had been successful. “After surreptitiously tracking the intruders to study their movements and help erect better defences to block them, the Times and computer experts have expelled the attackers and kept them from breaking back in,” it said in a report.
The hacking attack represents an early challenge for the former BBC Director General Mark Thompson, who took up his new role as chief executive and president of the New York Times in November.
Mandiant, a security firm hired by the publisher, found that the hackers had tried to disguise their origins by first targeting American university computers and directing their attacks on the newspaper from there. Chinese hackers had used a similar tactic of infiltrating university computers in previous attacks on the US military.
Malicious software (malware) was used to penetrate the New York Times system and gain access to the password of 53 employees. The paper said that it had found no evidence that the hackers had been attempting to access information other than that relating to its investigation into Mr Wen and it also claimed that sources on that project had not been compromised by the security breach.
Jim Abramson, executive editor of the New York Times, said: “Computer security experts found no evidence that sensitive e-mails or files from the reporting of our articles about the Wen family were accessed, downloaded or copied.”
The hackers are suspected of using a spear-phishing attack, in which targeted employees are sent emails containing a malicious link or attachment. By clicking on the e-mail, the employee immediately introduces a remote access tool (known as a RAT) onto their computer allowing every keystroke – and sometimes recording from the computer’s microphones and webcams - to be relayed to the attacker. Michael Higgins. Chief security officer at the New York Times, said: “Attackers no longer go after our firewall. They go after individuals. They send a malicious piece of code to your e-mail account and you’re opening it and letting them in.”