There are hackers and then there are hackers.
The first kind are like street-level pickpockets and petty thieves who just break in and steal whatever they can. They rummage through your life and property in a particularly crude fashion. The second kind are like the more sophisticated burglars with refined tastes, the kind dressed in a tuxedo who, while meticulously removing high valuables, might savor a sip or two of expensive wine. They are the kind who may be telling you that under better circumstances they could have been your friends.
I am not entirely sure how to categorize the Chinese hackers, who hacked into The New York Times for the past four months. Going by what the newspaper reports “Security experts found evidence that the hackers stole the corporate passwords for every Times employee and used those to gain access to the personal computers of 53 employees, most of them outside The Times’s newsroom. Experts found no evidence that the intruders used the passwords to seek information that was not related to the reporting on the Wen family.
No customer data was stolen from The Times, security experts said.”
The newspaper was “persistently” hacked for the past four months, apparently in response to its correspondent David Barboza’s investigation that exposed that relatives of Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao had amassed billions of dollars through business deals. The story was published online on October 25. The hacking began around that time.
“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,” Jill Abramson, executive editor of the paper has been quoted as saying.
The fact that no customer data was stolen shows that the Chinese hackers in this particular case seem to fall in the second category, the kind that thinks theirs is an art form and not thievery. More seriously though, it has been known for a long time, at least since 2008, that China has an army of highly skilled hackers whose job it is to scour the web of antagonistic material. They have both defensive and offensive hacking. Over the years they have become extremely good at what they do because cyber war is now an integral part of statecraft.
It is a measure of how detailed web scouring by China gets that in 2008, the year when reports say Chinese hackers began hacking systematically under official patronage, my personal website was blocked in that country. I was told that by someone from Beijing. What was particularly surprising was that even the website of a high profile friend’s company was blocked simply because of his association with me. The logic then seemed to be Mayank Chhaya who has written an authorized biography of the Dalai Lama is obviously part of the “splittist clique” and hence, by implication, his friends too are part of the “splittist clique” which wants to split Tibet away from China. Hence block Mayank Chhaya and all those he knows.
I do not know if my website remains blocked now. In 2010, when it was still blocked, a friend in Delhi, who knows how the Chinese apparatus operates, told me that my being blocked was not personal but part of a vast algorithm that filters out everything and everyone who may have had anything to do with Tibet and the Dalai Lama. So if I had any illusions about my importance, I should quickly banish them. I was just swept up along with the other muck that clogs the worldwide web.
Coming back to the Times hacking, perhaps more than looking for specific information the strategy may have been to just let the newspaper know that hackers could get in at will. Of course, the paper has completely overhauled its security but there is no guarantee that the Chinese would not continue to try and break in. More than the theft of data, sometimes it is the sheer presence of an intruder that is effective.