Journalists Under Online Attack, in China and Beyond

A new report from the Committee to Protect Journalists describes online attacks against journalists around the world. It begins in China, with the experience of one foreign journalist working there:

In March, Andrew Jacobs, a correspondent working for The New York Times in Beijing, peered for the first time into the obscure corners of his Yahoo e-mail account settings. Under the “mail forwarding” tab was an e-mail address he had never seen before. That other e-mail address had been receiving copies of all of his incoming e-mails for months. His account had been hacked.

Jacobs’ experience as a journalist in China is not unusual. Over the past two years, other members of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC) have been the victims of a series of targeted computer hacks. In 2009, carefully crafted e-mails from an elaborately constructed false identity—“Pam Bourdon,” economics editor of the Straits Times—were sent to their local news assistants via unpublicized e-mail addresses. If the assistants opened an attached document, they were shown exactly what one might expect from the e-mail’s cover explanation—a detailed list of dates that “Bourdon” would be available during a Beijing visit. Simultaneously, a hidden program capable of taking over and spying on the recipient’s computer would launch. Control of the assistant’s computer—and that of anyone who opened the forwarded document—would pass to remote servers controlled by unknown parties ….

When CPJ exchanged e-mails with Jacobs later in the year, he seemed philosophical about the degree of surveillance in which he and his Beijing colleagues worked. “Yes, I feel vulnerable,” he wrote, “but I’ve always assumed my e-mail was being read and that my phones are tapped. … It’s most unfortunate and creepy, but to be honest you just get used to it and communicate accordingly.”

Also mentioned is the growing sophistication of online surveillance and attacks in Vietnam, whose targets have included news sites reporting on ecologically damaging bauxite mining carried out there by Chinese companies.

Various aspects of reporting from within China are discussed in interviews with Berlingske’s Kim Rathcke Jensen on The China Beat and The Guardian’s Tania Branigan and McClatchy’s Tom Lasseter at ChinaGeeks.