Chinese Hackers Spy on Journalists to Track Sources

On January 31, 2013, the New York Times reported that its computers had been under constant attack by Chinese hackers over a period of four months. Shortly thereafter, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post also reported that they were targeted by Chinese hackers. The story is familiar to Chinese journalists, who, together with citizen reporters from mainland China, are very vulnerable to hacking and online harassment compared to their peers overseas.

This is not new for Hong Kong journalists either, who have to put up with daily surveillance of their computers at work.

To shed some light on surveillance practices used against journalists in China, Hong Kong-based online news portal The House News interviewed [zh] Cable TV China desk reporter, Lui Ping-Kuen.

The Chinese government has denied all the accusations about its involvement in hacking activities. Photo from flickr user Futurist CC: AT-NC.

The Chinese government has denied all the accusations about its involvement in hacking activities. Photo from flickr user Futurist CC: AT-NC.

Lui affirms that the hacking of email accounts is very common among journalists. “[O]nce the email account of a colleague of mine was hacked and that account sent out virus emails to all its contacts,” he recounts.

SMS text messages are also under tight surveillance. According to Lui, his interview arrangement was exposed because of a message from the cross-platform mobile messaging application Whatsapp. He also says that the contacts in his mobile phone were collected by the police after he was detained at a mainland China police station. He explains that quite often, the conversation between two persons would be disrupted because of mobile surveillance.

Lui described a terrifying experience that took place in 2007 when he was helping to set up a news room in Shanghai, eastern China. “[W]e went out for a meal and when we came back, something was wrong: the windows and the light [appeared to have been disturbed] and we discovered later that the settings of three computers had been changed.”

In order to protect their sources, journalists do not use email or mobile phones for communication. Instead they use public pay phones and talk face-to-face with sources, often in secret meeting places. They often do not take their mobiles along with them in meetings for fear of being tracked.

In the past few days, the Twitter accounts of many mainland Chinese independent reporters were hacked. This prompted Twitter to reset the passwords of many Chinese journalists. Twitter also sent out a notice in which it explained the following (via Deng Zhixin, a reporter from the Chinese magazine Sun Affair):

This attack was not the work of amateurs, and we do not believe it was an isolated incident. The attackers were extremely sophisticated, and we believe other companies and organizations have also been recently similarly attacked. For that reason we felt that it was important to reset your password and publicize this attack while we still gather information. We are also helping government and federal law enforcement in their effort to find and prosecute these attackers to make the Internet safer for all users.

Compared to their peers overseas, independent Chinese citizen reporters are very vulnerable. Many of them have to endure regular “tea sessions” (unwarranted police interrogations) with internal security police officers. If they refuse to expose their information sources, it is often the case that the police find an excuse to arrest them.

The latest case is related to a sex tape scandal, which has resulted in the sacking of 10 party officials. The video, showing Chongqing officials having sexual relations with young girls, was first uploaded to the internet by investigative journalist Zhu Ruifeng. Zhu was later “visited” by Chongqing police. It is believed that the police wanted to get hold of the original video storage disks so as to track the video's digital footprint and locate its original source, but little else has been reported about the status of the investigation.

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