Hackers thought to be from China infiltrated the internal networks of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and attempted to gain information on sources related to The Times' investigation into the mysterious wealth of the family of China's prime minister, Wen Jiabao, and the newspapers' other China-related coverage, according to articles published by the two companies Jan. 31.
The attack at The Times, which appears to have started in September, resulted in three backdoors into the company's network and the compromise of the email accounts of The Times' Shanghai bureau chief David Barboza and South Asian bureau chief Jim Yardley.
Routing their online connections through U.S. universities, the attackers installed backdoors in key computers with the media firm's network and used that access to steal the passwords for all Times employees. Although the attackers gained access to the computers of 53 Times employees, most outside the newsroom, the company claimed that no sensitive information on the company's investigation had been leaked.
"Computer security experts found no evidence that sensitive emails or files from reporting of our articles about the Wen family were accessed, downloaded or copied," Jill Abramson, executive editor of The Times, said in a front-page article in today's newspaper.
Incident response firm Mandiant conducted the investigation into the attack on The Times, the newspaper said.
The Journal released few details of its own network compromise on Jan. 31, stating that the FBI has been investigating Chinese attacks on media companies for more than a year.
"Evidence shows that infiltration efforts target the monitoring of The Journal's coverage of China and are not an attempt to gain commercial advantage or to misappropriate customer information," Paula Keve, a spokeswoman for The Journal's parent company, Dow Jones & Co., said in a statement published Jan. 31.
In an Oct. 25 article, The New York Times reported that China's prime minister's relatives had emerged from poor roots to control more than $2.7 billion in assets. The money is hidden behind partnerships and investment vehicles, including banks, jewelers, tourist resorts, telecommunications companies and infrastructure projects, according to The Times.
Hackers have frequently targeted media companies. A decade ago, hacktivists in China and the U.S. defaced the Website of the Cable News Network (CNN), angered over a U.S. spy plane that collided with a Chinese fighter jet. In 2011, hackers affiliated with Anonymous stole user and credit card information from global intelligence firm Stratfor.
However, going after sources is a fairly new development. Chinese hackers appear to have targeted stolen emails, contacts and files from more than 30 journalists and executives at Western news organizations, according to a Mandiant report cited by The Times. Last year, The Times' rival Bloomberg News was also targeted by the Chinese, allegedly related to that publication's own investigation into wealth accumulated by the relatives of another Chinese Communist party member.
The Times fought for almost two weeks to oust the hackers from their network before calling in Mandiant, a well-known security firm. It's likely that a spear-phishing attack targeted specific employees and led to the compromise of the news organization's network.
Companies should work harder to protect their networks from a single mistake made by an employee, said Anup Ghosh, founder and CEO of threat-protection firm Invincea.
"The largest attack area for an enterprise network is their users," he said. "Until we think about users as an extension of our network, we are not addressing that problem."
It's a statement with which Michael Higgins, chief security officer of The Times, would likely agree.
"Attackers no longer go after our firewall. They go after individuals," he said in the article. "They send a malicious piece of code to your email account and you're opening it and letting them in."
Antivirus software from Symantec failed to detect all but one of the 45 different custom pieces of malware the attackers installed, the news organization said.