Thursday, 13 September 2007

Beware anonymous sources behind latest ‘cyberwarfare’ scares

So the big news now is that the West is facing a major new threat – cyberwarfare from China. I’m concerned. The newspapers are carrying prominent, lengthy articles about Chinese hackers (“cyberwarriors”), some from the People’s Liberation Army, attacking computer networks of British and German government departments. These latest disclosures come after reports that the Chinese military had hacked into the Pentagon military computer network in June.

Predictably the Chinese authorities have been quick to deny all the allegations. Equally predictably, these denials are swiftly dismissed in the news reports. Coverage by Clifford Coonan, in a double page spread in the Independent of 6 September 2007, is typical. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman’s comments (“China and the US are now devoted to constructive relations and co-operation…”) are buried in paragraph 25. Immediately afterwards, undaunted, Coonan returns to his main theme of China’s growing cyberwarfare threat. “In 2003, a cyber espionage ring code-named Titan Rain by US investigators was tracked to Guangdong province after a network break-in at Lockheed Martin.”

Equally worrying is the way in which so many of these features are dominated by anonymous sources. We know, for instance, how anonymous “intelligence”, “Whitehall”, “defence ministry” sources were used to promote the lies about those imaginary Weapons of Mass Destruction in the lead-up to the criminal US/UK assault on Iraq in 2003 and so have become highly suspicious whenever they reappear. But take a look at Coonan’s double-page spread. In 32 paragraphs, there is not one named Western source. Instead, we have authoritative statements from sources such as “one security expert who did not wish to be named”, an “analyst”, “computer security experts”, “a security analyst” and speculating “webheads”.

Michael Evans, Defence Editor, in The Times of 6 September, under the headline “China ‘tops list’ of cyber-hackers seeking UK government secrets”, quotes simply “Whitehall” sources. And he reports: “MI5 has told the Government that at least 20 foreign intelligence services were operating some degree against British interests and that China and Russia were of greatest concern.”

The previous day, Bernhard Warner, former Reuters’ internet correspondent, built a 10-paragraph feature in The Times on “the ongoing digital struggle between China and the West” around quotes from a single source, Roberto Preatoni. But take a look at Wikipedia on Mr Preatoni. In a brief entry, he is described, strangely, as “class 1967” and co-author “with a mysterious person going by the handle of Evil Angelica (named after the infamous web-defacer) of the hacker comics Hero-Z”. Certainly Wikipedia needs to be always handled critically – but surely there are more authoritative sources available on such a serious issue?

A Guardian feature on China’s “informationised army” by Ed Pilkington and Bobbie Johnson, on 5 September, relies in its opening paragraphs on reports in the Financial Times, Der Spiegel and on un-named “internet security experts”. Quotes towards the end come from Sami Saydjari, “who worked as a Pentagon cyber expert for 13 years and now runs a private company, Cyber Defence Agency” and Jody Westby, of “CyLab based at Carnegie Mellon University”. But these sources don’t supply any new information drawn from any original research; they merely rhetorically support the underlying theme of the feature.

A report in the Daily Mail of 5 September similarly relies almost entirely on anonymous sources. Just one named source, Alex Neill, “an expert on the Chinese military and head of the Asia Security Programme at the Royal United Services Institute” is quoted as saying cyberattacks had been emanating from China for four years. The same source is quoted in Richard Norton-Taylor’s front page splash on “Titan Rain” in the same day’s Guardian.
So, folks, if these “cyberterrorist” scare stories proliferate, let’s see if anonymous (and hence rather dodgy) quotes continue to dominate the coverage. Are the sources transmitting information – or disinformation?

  • Richard Keeble has just co-edited, with Sarah Maltby, Communicating War: Memory, Media and Military (Arima), a collection of essays on the media’s handling of war and terrorism. And with Sharon Wheeler he has also just co-edited The Journalistic Imagination: Literary Journalists from Defoe to Capote and Carter (Routledge).

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