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, according to journalists in China who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. Later Thursday, the Wall Street Journal said Chinese hackers had infiltrated its computer systems in an apparent attempt 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.”
Security consultants for the organization have said that the attacks they have examined originated in China, Ford said. “But the Chinese authorities have never appeared to take these allegations seriously,” he added.
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 the Chinese military of launching cyberattacks without any conclusive evidence.”
A spokesman for the Chinese 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 e-mails or clone their e-mail addresses — have become an unavoidable part of the job.
“You assume it’s pervasive and that your e-mail 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 e-mails, 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 company-wide infrastructure at the newspaper’s U.S. offices, according to the paper’s account. Similar methods have been used in the past against defense contractors, technology companies and global corporations.
Although other 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, given their need to either protect their corporate businesses and reputations, preserve continuing and necessary dealings with the Chinese government, or avoid revealing to hackers more information about the companies’ security vulnerabilities.
“When you’re dealing with the 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. The Times’ Web site and that of Bloomberg News — which published a similar investigative report on the family of China’s new leader, Xi Jinping — have been blocked for months. The Times’ new Beijing 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 online access to the Times also sets back the company’s 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 Beijing government after its coverage of the Chinese military’s confrontation with student protesters at Tiananmen Square in 1989, one Chinese scholar said.
“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.”
Zhang Jie contributed to this report.