The New York Times’ Nicole Perloth wrote a disturbing piece last week describing the repeated hacking of the paper’s computers and emails, purported to be conducted by the Chinese government. This highlights yet another foreign cyber attack carried out against U.S. financial and communication systems. In fact, last week the Pentagon announced that it is increasing fivefold the size and scope of its cyber security force over the next few years. Both the government and the private sector are nervous about cyber attacks, such as the Iranian hacking attacks against American banks. As one head of global security at an international investment bank told me last year, “It’s not a matter of if our firm gets attacked, it’s a matter of when. The question is, how well will we be prepared for it?”
The Chinese government is very attuned to perceived political and financial threats. In an excellent piece of investigative journalism, The Globe and Mail wrote last year of the threats received by firms investigating fraudulent Chinese companies. One of these firms, Muddy Waters (a DPR client), was hacked back in 2011.
The hacking against the Times represents a different problem altogether. While targeting financial institutions hurts American business, this most recent attack has the potential to greatly diminish one of America’s greatest assets—freedom of the press.
The motivations of the Chinese government are complex although there is one specific target they had in mind. The Times points out that the hackers were looking for information on Shanghai bureau chief David Barboza’s sources. As Perloth writes, “What they appeared to be looking for were the names of people who might have provided information to Mr. Barboza.”
This attacks the very foundation of free journalism. Chinese dissidents and critics cannot rely on their own media to report critically on the government, but they could depend on the foreign press. Now, with their covers blown, they will be forced to keep quiet. We can only guess what the Chinese government will do with the information of the identities of the sources used by Barboza.
As a professional in an industry that often provides those sources, the idea that their integrity and security could be compromised is very disheartening. I hope that the free press finds ways to adequately protect themselves to continue the important job that they do, especially in countries that do not enjoy the same freedoms we have at home.
Ben Jaffe is an Account Supervisor at Dukas Public Relations and holds a Master’s in Government with a Specialization in Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Studies.