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Chinese Hackers Spy on Journalists to Track Whistleblowers

On January 2012, the New York Times reported that its news room's computers were constantly attacked by Chinese hackers. Shortly afterwards, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post also reported that they were targeted by Chinese hackers. The story is familiar to Chinese journalists, who, together with citizen reporters from mainland China, are very vulnerable to hacking and online harassment compared to their peers overseas.

This is not new for Hong Kong journalists either, who have to put up with daily surveillance of their computers at work.

To shed some light on the surveillance practices against journalists in China, Hong Kong-based online news portal The House News interviewed [zh] Cable TV China desk reporter, Lui Ping-Kuen.

The Chinese government has denied all the accusations about its involvement in hacking activities. Photo from flickr user Futurist CC: AT-NC.

The Chinese government has denied all the accusations about its involvement in hacking activities. Photo from flickr user Futurist CC: AT-NC.

Lui affirms that the hacking of email accounts is very common among journalists. “[O]nce the email account of a colleague of mine was hacked and that account sent out virus emails to all its contacts,” he recounts.

SMS text messages are also under tight surveillance. According to Lui, his interview arrangement was exposed because of a Whatsapp message. He also says that the contacts in his mobile phone were collected by the police after he was detained at a mainland China police station. He also explains that quite often, the conversation between two persons would be disrupted because of mobile surveillance.

The most terrifying experience for Lui was back in 2007 when he was helping to set up a news room in Shanghai, eastern China. “[W]e went out for a meal and when we came back, something was wrong: the windows and the light [appeared to have been disturbed] and we discovered later that the settings of three computers had been changed.”

In order to protect their sources, journalists do not use email and mobile for communication. Instead they use public phones and talk face-to-face with whistleblowers in often secret meeting places. They would not even take their mobiles along with them in meetings for fear of being tracked.

In the past few days, the Twitter accounts of many mainland Chinese independent reporters were hacked. This prompted Twitter to reset the passwords of many Chinese journalists. Twitter also sent out a notice in which it explained the following (via Deng Zhixin, a reporter from the Chinese magazine Sun Affair):

This attack was not the work of amateurs, and we do not believe it was an isolated incident. The attackers were extremely sophisticated, and we believe other companies and organizations have also been recently similarly attacked. For that reason we felt that it was important to reset your password and publicize this attack while we still gather information. We are also helping government and federal law enforcement in their effort to find and prosecute these attackers to make the Internet safer for all users.

Compared to their peers overseas, independent Chinese citizen reporters are very vulnerable. Many of them have to endure regular “tea sessions” (unwarranted police interrogations) with internal security police officers. If they refuse to expose their information sources, it is often the case that the police finds excuse to arrest them.

The latest case is related to a sex-tape scandal, which has resulted in the sacking of 10 party officials. The video, showing Chongqing officials having sexual relations with young girls, was first uploaded on the internet by investigative journalist Zhu Ruifenghas. Zhu was later “visited” by Chongqing police. It is believed that the police wanted to get hold of the original video storage disks so as to track the digital footprints and dig out the information source. But thanks to the military history of Zhu's family and a widespread online support the police was forced to back off.

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