Journalists, media under attack from hackers: Google researchers

SINGAPORE Fri Mar 28, 2014 5:48am EDT

One of the business sites of Internet search engine Google Inc is shown on a computer screen in Encinitas, California April 13, 2010. REUTERS/Mike Blake

One of the business sites of Internet search engine Google Inc is shown on a computer screen in Encinitas, California April 13, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Mike Blake

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SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Twenty-one of the world's top-25 news organizations have been the target of likely state-sponsored hacking attacks, according to research by two Google security engineers.

While many internet users face attacks via email designed to steal personal data, journalists were "massively over-represented" among such targets, said Shane Huntley, a security software engineer at Google.

The attacks were launched by hackers either working for or in support of a government, and were specifically targeting journalists, Huntley and co-author Morgan Marquis-Boire said in interviews. Their paper was presented at a Black Hat hackers conference in Singapore on Friday.

"If you're a journalist or a journalistic organization we will see state-sponsored targeting and we see it happening regardless of region, we see it from all over the world both from where the targets are and where the targets are from," Huntley told Reuters.

Both researchers declined to go into detail about how Google monitors such attacks, but said it "tracks the state actors that attack our users." Recipients of such emails in Google's Gmail service typically receive a warning message.

Security researcher Ashkan Soltani said in an earlier Twitter post that nine of the top-25 news websites use Google for hosted email services. The list is based on traffic volumes measured by Alexa, a web information firm owned by Amazon.com Inc.

California-headquartered Google also owns VirusTotal, a website that analyses files and websites to check for malicious content.

"TIP OF THE ICEBERG"

Several U.S. news organizations have said they have been hacked in the past year, and Forbes, the Financial Times and the New York Times have all succumbed to attacks by the Syrian Electronic Army, a group of pro-government hackers.

Huntley said Chinese hackers recently gained access to a major Western news organization, which he declined to identify, via a fake questionnaire emailed to staff. Most such attacks involve carefully crafted emails carrying malware or directing users to a website crafted to trick them into giving up credentials.

Marquis-Boire said that while such attacks were nothing new, their research showed that the number of attacks on media organizations and journalists that went unreported was significantly higher than those made public.

"This is the tip of the iceberg," he said, noting a year-long spate of attacks on journalists and others interested in human rights in Vietnam, including an Associated Press reporter. The attacks usually involved sending the target an infected email attachment masquerading as a human rights document.

While many of the world's biggest media players have been targeted in these attacks, small news organizations, citizen journalists and bloggers were also targeted, Huntley said, noting hacking attacks on journalists in Morocco and Ethiopia.

The problem, Marquis-Boire said, was that news organizations have been slower than other businesses in recognizing the threat and taking action. "A lot of news organizations are just waking up to this," he said.

Many journalists are now taking individual action to protect their computers and email accounts, he said. "We're seeing a definite upswing of individual journalists who recognize this is important."

(Editing by Ian Geoghegan)

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Comments (9)
rblivingston wrote:
How disinterested is Google?

I stopped using its search engine because, by design or accident, it promoted some news sources and themes over others.

I felt like Winston in 1984.

Finding truth in today’s media landscape is a bit like finding democracy in a country dominated by a collusion of financial and national security interests.

Google which claims to be a benign company is in reality remote from the interests of its users; close to its advertising partners.

It is a behemoth with a massive interest in influencing what people think by dominating what people learn.

We don’t need Google to tell us journalists are harried. We know they are.

Mar 28, 2014 9:06am EDT  --  Report as abuse
@rblivingston

Did you even read the article? Your comment is way off topic.

Mar 28, 2014 10:49am EDT  --  Report as abuse
dd606 wrote:
There must be some mistake… Everybody knows that only the big bad NSA does stuff like this. Every other nation in the world, is just a bunch of angels, that never do anything wrong.

Mar 28, 2014 12:41pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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