Skip to main content

New York Times, Wall Street Journal say Chinese hackers broke into computers

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: The Wall Street Journal says Chinese hackers entered its computer system too
  • Chinese defense ministry says the military has never supported hackers
  • NYT attacks reportedly began during a controversial investigation in China
  • Hackers obtained the company passwords of every Times employee

Hong Kong (CNN) -- The New York Times says Chinese hackers have carried out sustained attacks on its computer systems, breaking in and stealing the passwords of high-profile reporters and other staff members.

According to The Times, one of the biggest and most respected U.S. newspapers, the cyberassaults took place over the past four months, beginning during an investigation by the newspaper into the wealth reportedly accumulated by relatives of the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that its computer systems also had been infiltrated by Chinese hackers. The hackers were monitoring the newspaper's China coverage, according to a written statement from Paula Keve, chief communications officer for parent company Dow Jones & Co.

New York Times: We were hacked
2011: What Chinese hackers look for

"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," the statement read, according to The Journal.

The Times's reports on Wen's family members, alleging they had amassed financial holdings worth billions of dollars through business transactions, infuriated Chinese authorities, who responded by blocking access to The Times' website in mainland China.

The Times said in an extensive article dated Wednesday that it had worked with computer security experts to monitor, study and then eject the attackers. It said that by following their movements, it aimed to "erect better defenses to block them" in the future.

The newspaper said that the security experts it used to counter the attacks had accumulated "digital evidence that Chinese hackers, using methods that some consultants have associated with the Chinese military in the past, breached The Times's network."

Asked about The Times's allegations on Thursday, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said that "all such alleged attacks are groundless, irresponsible accusations lacking solid proof or reliable research results."

China has been the victim of cyberattacks and "has laws and regulations prohibiting such actions," the spokesman, Hong Lei, said at a regular news briefing.

A separate statement from the Chinese Ministry of National Defense said the country's military "has never supported any hacker activities."

The U.S. State Department said that The Times's experience with Chinese hackers is similar to those of other businesses and individuals and that the department has expressed its concerns to Chinese officials.

"The United States has substantial and growing concern about the threats to economic and national security posed by cyberintrusions, including the theft of commercial information," department spokesman Peter Velasco said in a statement. "We have repeatedly raised our concerns with senior Chinese officials, including military officials, and we will continue to do so."

On Thursday, it appeared that television censors in China were blacking out CNN's reporting of the hacking story.

China-focused journalists targeted

According to The Times, the intruders hacked into the e-mail accounts of its Shanghai bureau chief, David Barboza, the reporter on the controversial articles about Wen's relatives' wealth, and Jim Yardley, the New Delhi bureau chief who had previously covered China.

"What they appeared to be looking for," the Times article said, "were the names of people who might have provided information to Mr. Barboza."

But the security experts hired by the newspaper "found no evidence that sensitive emails or files from the reporting of our articles about the Wen family were accessed, downloaded or copied," said Jill Abramson, executive editor of The Times.

The investigators gathered evidence that the hackers obtained the corporate passwords for every Times employee, using them to break into the personal computers of 53 employees, most of them outside the newsroom.

With the level of access the intruders had gained, senior editors at the newspaper were reportedly worried that they might attempt to disrupt the news organization's publishing systems, notably on the night of the U.S. presidential election in November, when it said the attackers were especially active.

"They could have wreaked havoc on our systems," Marc Frons, the Times' chief information officer, said in the newspaper's report. "But that was not what they were after."

There was no evidence the hackers used the passwords they obtained to pursue information not connected to the Wen family investigation, The Times said, adding that no customer data were stolen.

The Times said it informed and "voluntarily briefed" the FBI about the attacks.

An angry reaction last year

At the time of the publication of the initial Times report on Wen's family in October, Chinese authorities called it an attempt "to blacken China's image," saying it had "ulterior motives."

It came at a particularly sensitive time in China, a matter of weeks before the start of the ruling Communist Party's 18th National Congress, at which the country's next set of leaders was announced.

The Times' English- and Chinese-language websites remain blocked in mainland China, as do those of Bloomberg News, which in June published a report on the business interests of relatives of Xi Jinping, who is now the country's top leader.

The Chinese government tries aggressively to control the flow of information inside its borders about sensitive topics like unrest in Tibetan areas and criticism of senior officials. It strictly manages the output of domestic news media outlets and has a history of shutting off access to international news websites.

Chinese authorities have blacked out the broadcast signal for international television stations like CNN and the BBC when they have aired sensitive reports about the country.

CNN Staff in Beijing contributed to this report.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:31 AM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Denza announced its electric car would sell for $60,000 earlier this week, but the attractive price might not be enough to convince China's drivers.
updated 11:06 PM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
"Across the Great Wall we can reach every corner of the world," read China's first email back in 1987. Today, China dominates the digital world.
updated 12:47 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
With over 700 million smartphone users, China's mobile market is huge. But sheer numbers aside, what makes it really impressive?
updated 10:57 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Despite the Chinese leadership's austerity measures the country's biggest car show opened to much buzz.
updated 5:30 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
CNN's Beijing Bureau Chief, Jaime FlorCruz, remembers when a phone call from a student alerted him to the Tiananmen Square protest
updated 8:37 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Mentions of the 1989 Tiananmen Square student protests or political reform are still censored in China.
updated 2:01 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
CNN's Brian Stelter talks with CCTV correspondent Jim Spellman on how the Chinese media has covered MH370's mystery.
China's economy has bested many others in just the past 10 years.
updated 2:02 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
In China, users of the "Life Black Box" website can set up final farewells to their friends in case they suddenly die.
updated 1:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
A recent university study claims Chinese micro-blogging activity might not be as vibrant as expected.
updated 6:14 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Chinese art has been fetching some serious cash -- here's how we can elbow into the market
updated 10:51 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
A Shanghainese collector paid $36 million for this tiny cup decorated with chickens.
updated 2:57 AM EDT, Tue April 8, 2014
Ben Richardson on corruption in China: a veil of secrecy shrouds the links between power and wealth.
China's economy is slowing and growth in 2014 could fall short of the government's official target, according to a CNNMoney survey of economists.
updated 8:38 AM EDT, Tue April 8, 2014
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is the first foreigner to visit the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning.
updated 9:26 PM EDT, Sun April 6, 2014
If the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 caused a rift in China-Malaysia relations, the two countries appear to have put it behind them.
updated 1:17 AM EDT, Fri April 4, 2014
Martin Jacques argues that in the twenty-first century, China will challenge our perception of what it is to be modern.
A new survey of university students in China shows where they most want to work. What are the dream employers for Chinese students?
updated 9:24 AM EDT, Wed April 2, 2014
What are President Xi Jinping's greatest goals as he visits the EU headquarters in Brussels?
Last year, thousands of Chinese tourists flocked to Yellowstone National Park to view the mountains, the buffalo and Old Faithful.
ADVERTISEMENT