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N.Y. Times hacked: How large is China's campaign to control, intimidate?

The list of media outlets infiltrated by Chinese cyberspies doesn't end with The New York Times or Wall St. Journal, cybersecurity experts say. Anyone reporting on China is a potential target.

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But why hack into Western news media outlets or mount such an extensive campaign at all? China media experts say it's all about controlling or influencing news coverage, if possible.

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Since the Internet now makes it possible for Chinese citizens to get at least some news electronically – leaking through digital barriers – Chinese authorities are finding it necessary to try to find out in advance, if possible, what news organizations will report. The aim is to try to short-circuit embarrassing stories or stop them altogether if possible, these Chinese media experts say.

"While just one case in a sweeping cyberespionage campaign that appears endemic, the attack on the Times does highlight both the willingness of Beijing to lean out and shape the narrative about China as well as the vulnerability the top leadership feels about how they are portrayed," Adam Segal, a senior fellow for China Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote on the Foreign Policy magazine website. "Beijing is pushing its Internet power outside of China into the rest of the world."

What the Times and other hacks demonstrate, Dr. Segal argues, is the desire to shape international political narratives "as well as gather information from those who might influence the debates on topics of importance to Beijing."

Xiao Qiang, a Chinese dissident now living in the United States, agrees.

"Controlling the information – and the image of what the external foreign media report about China – are both important to the Chinese authorities, and the two areas are increasingly linked," says Mr. Qiang, now director of the China Internet Project and an adjunct professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

Because what is reported outside China gets translated and flows back to China electronically, it is seen as vital to control how China is reported on in the foreign media because it is directly linked to what Chinese people know about their internal affairs, Mr. Quiang says. It's also about intimidating not just journalists but those who would speak to them.

"If those sources know they aren't safe – because China is inside the news organization computers – they are unlikely to be cooperative with foreign media," Qiang says. "If they can, they will try to stop the story altogether. If being inside a computer system puts them a step ahead because they know who the reporters are speaking to, they will cut off the sources back in China. That's what they're really trying to achieve."

Liz Carter, a translator and China consultant who follows about 500 to 600 people who broadcast their views on Twitter, agrees. Among the Twitter users she follows in China, many utilize encryption technologies to evade authorities. She says Chinese censors have increased the speed with which they shut off stories critical of the government that spread in tweets to the broader public. Invading Western news organizations networks are all part of trying to control the flow.


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