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New York Times takes on China in hacking battle

It might go down as the last heroic stand of the print media. The New York Times, venerable and self-regarding monolith of American print, has stood up to a bully of impressive size, the People’s Republic of China.

The Times IT staff, presumably relishing the opportunity to do something more exciting than sitting in the basement telling reporters "have you tried switching it off and switching it on again", monitored hacking attacks that they believe emanated from Chinese state or military hackers. China was provoked by the NYT’s hard-hitting expose of the vast wealth accumulated by the family of outgoing premier Wen Jiabao.

The Beijing government has dismissed the paper’s accusations that they instigated the attacks, but this kind of cyber-attack has become a common tactic by Chinese hackers. "This is business as usual from what we can tell for aspects of the Chinese government," Marc Frons, the NYT’s digital technology head, told The Guardian. "It is really spy versus spy. I don't think we can relax. I am pretty sure that they will be back."

It would seem like something of a mismatch. The New York Times’s Symantec anti-virus programmes were outgunned by the hackers. Out of the 45 items of custom malware, the Symantec programmes identified just one.

The paper brought in Mandiant, a cyber-security company. They traced the attacks to vulnerable university computer systems that the Chinese had used to hack military contractors in the past. The main target was the computer of David Barboza, the Shanghai bureau chief who had written the Wen exposé.

"They were after David Barboza's source list; confidential names and numbers and looking to find out who he was talking to," said Frons. Given the Chinese government’s robust approach to arresting and sentencing alleged dissidents, the hacking attack could have chilling repercussions for the paper’s sources.

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