Hacks and hacking

The New York Times has denied claims a cyber attack was responsible for its website crashing on Wednesday, saying instead it was caused by a scheduled maintenance update.

Which is annoying, because I wanted to write a headline along the lines of ‘hacks hacked off with hacking’ or something.

But people could be forgiven for thinking that’s exactly what happened after Chinese hackers brought down the NYT website back in January.

Indeed, they attacked the NYT and Wall Street Journal repeatedly for four months up until then, amid claims they were trying to sabotage the publications’ China coverage after the NYT reported on Chinese prime minister Wen Jiabao’s relatives, who allegedly control billions of dollars in financial assets under Jiabao’s leadership.

Other cyber activity in the news this last fortnight includes an attack on the Dalai Lama’s website, which was hit with a virus giving hackers control over visitors’ computers, and cyber geeks exploiting a security flaw in Mozilla’s Firefox 17 browser to track paedophiles using Tor’s ‘hidden internet’.

Despite being great stuff to report on, this is all bad news for journalists, and for free speech.

Not only is Tor used by many reporters to maintain contact with confidential sources, thus making the existence of a vulnerable security flaw appear suddenly much more sinister, but it seems more and more journalists are being targeted by cyber criminals.

The Committee to Protect Journalists said earlier this year that reporters are increasingly the targets of cyber attacks.

It stated that the number of such cyber assaults have risen over the past few years, especially in countries and regions including Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia.

Journalists working in China actually reported receiving regular warnings from Google that their accounts were being targeted by what Google called a "state-sponsored attack".

Journalists, of course, are no strangers to hacking, phones being a specialty, but now cyber criminals seem to be going after the concept of free speech itself – targeting information on reporters’ own devices, they could procure anything from reporters’ own address details to the identities of their confidential informants.

With the internet making news and information an instantaneous and relentless source of knowledge, journalists providing that content should try and be more aware of the risks they are putting themselves and their sources at in the process of doing so, and what they can do to protect against them.

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