News organisation have had a relaxed attitude to cyber security despite being a frequent target of hackers

Journalists most frequent target of state-sponsored hackers

Most of the world’s prominent news organisations have been attacked by hackers secretly working for various governments, a study by Google security engineers has revealed.

According to the study performed by Shane Huntley and Morgan Marquis-Boire, two security software engineers working for Google, journalists are frequent recipients of infected emails designed to lure them into giving out their personal details. Such emails could have a form of fake questionnaires emailed to staff or direct messages directing users to suspicious websites. Some of the emails used to trick journalist in the past pretended to be human rights documents.

Presenting the study at a Black Hat conference in Singapore, the two engineers refused to give details on 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.

"If you're a journalist or a journalistic organisation 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.

According to security researcher Ashkan Soltani 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 Inc.

California-headquartered Google also owns VirusTotal, a website that analyses files

Among the prominent news organisations that have been hacked during the past year was Forbes, the Financial Times and the New York Times – all of them have fallen victim to attacks by the Syrian Electronic Army, known for its connections to the Syrian government.

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

He also noted that while such attacks were nothing new, their research showed that the number of attacks on media organisations and journalists that went unreported was significantly higher than those made public.

While many of the world's biggest media players have been targeted in these attacks, small news organisations, citizen journalists and bloggers were not safe either, the researchers said, taking attacks on journalists in Morocco and Ethiopia as an example.

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 recognise this is important."

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