Are China’s Hackers Preying on Journalist E-Mail Habits?

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Jan. 31 (Bloomberg) -- This afternoon the Wall Street Journal said that Chinese hackers had infiltrated its computer systems.

This comes after last night’s lengthy revelation from the New York Times that it was attacked by hackers -- seemingly from China, possibly from the country’s military -- over the last four months. The intruders were apparently interested in uncovering information about reporting done for a story, published on Oct. 25, on the incredible wealth of the relatives of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. But during their espionage, the hackers accessed the corporate passwords of every Times employee, according to security experts.

Much of the response to this breach will probably -- and rightly -- center on the lengths to which the Chinese go to control the news media. Local censorship, cutting off access to popular sites such as Facebook and Twitter, even blocking news websites such as the New York Times and Bloomberg News after they publish exposes on Chinese leaders’ wealth and power are not enough. There’s an offensive side to this battle with transparency, one that requires meddling in the business of those whom the Chinese fear might be watching them too closely. (A Bloomberg News representative confirmed for the Times that hackers attempted to infiltrate Bloomberg as well, though “no computer systems or computers were compromised.”)

But we must also not forget the initial source of the breach. As the Times article, written by Nicole Perlroth, explains: “Investigators still do not know how hackers initially broke into the Times’s systems. They suspect the hackers used a so-called spear-phishing attack, in which they send e-mail to employees that contain malicious links or attachments. All it takes is one click on the e-mail by an employee for hackers to install ’remote access tools’ -- or RATs. Those tools can siphon off oceans of data -- passwords, keystrokes, screen images, documents and, in some cases, recordings from computers’ microphones and Web cameras -- and send the information back to the attackers’ Web servers. Michael Higgins, chief security officer at The Times, said: ’Attackers no longer go after our firewall. They go after individuals. They send a malicious piece of code to your e-mail account and you’re opening it and letting them in.’”

In other words, it seems plausible that this sustained hacking attack was the result of a single employee clicking on a phony link in an e-mail.

There’s a precedent for that. Take the case of the South Carolina Department of Revenue, where this past fall, records from 3.8 million individual tax filers, 699,900 businesses, 3.3 million bank accounts and 5,000 credit cards were exposed. How did the hackers initially get in? According to a report by Mandiant, the same company that the Times hired to investigate and respond to its breaches, at least one Department of Revenue employee clicked a link on a malicious e-mail.

This is not to say we should blame the victim. These attacks did not result from lost laptops or misplaced sets of documents getting into the wrong hands: They were planned to trick people and to steal information. So too, at least in the South Carolina case, sensitive information was not adequately protected; for example, social security numbers were not encrypted, meaning that once the hackers broke down the necessary doors, the data were right there waiting for them in readable form.

At the Times, employee passwords were “hashed,” or scrambled, but as Perlroth says, “While hashes make hackers’ break-ins more difficult, hashed passwords can easily be cracked using so-called rainbow tables -- readily available databases of hash values for nearly every alphanumeric character combination, up to a certain length.”

Yes, it would be great if the bad guys (or bad governments) didn’t exist and if vulnerable information was kept behind doors locked more tightly and in forms read less easily. But at the end of the day, employees are the ones opening the doors for these attacks.

We think a lot about the accidents we make when sending e-mail. With one click of a button, we can send permanent messages without thinking, taking stock of the situation or taking a walk to the post office to cool our emotions. Nifty Google Gmail add-ons can allow you to “undo” sending an e-mail after pressing the button (it really just holds your message for five seconds before sending) and can ask you math problems before allowing you to send a note late on a Friday night in an attempt to bar an intoxicated you from saying things a sober you might wish to take back. The notion is clear: “send” and “regret” come hand-in-hand.

But we need to think more about the regret that comes with reading e-mail, too. Spam is not just annoying and inbox-clogging, but can also be dangerous. Filters and anti-virus software will never catch all the rogue e-mail, and hackers are getting better at making themselves seem more like friends, colleagues and the companies with which you do business, who themselves are more frequently sending you links and articles and forms to be filled out.

We keep hearing of the cyberwars that will wreak havoc on our world in the coming years. The Times article alluded to the cyberattack allegedly used by the U.S. and Israel against Iran’s nuclear enrichment plan. U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has told us more than once to fear the possibility of an impending cyber-“Pearl Harbor.”

But before it gets to that, it’s probably going to be the next local robbery and tax-fraud scheme and set of stolen research. It might be worth doing a bit more mental calculus before opening your virtual doors.

(Zara Kessler is an assistant editor and producer for Bloomberg View. Follow her on Twitter.)