Hacker Incident: What’s the Journal Got To Hide?

December 25th, 2014 · 2 Comments · journalism

By Denise Tessier

Hacker attacks Journal website” was the headline on a brief four inches of copy deep inside the Albuquerque Journal’s print edition Christmas Day.

The story said the Journal’s website had to be taken down for “several hours” Wednesday morning “after someone posted an altered version” of a news report of a police officer slaying from 43 years ago. The short hacker story said:

The alteration inserted under the reporter’s byline purported to be a threat from the radical group ISIS.

Quickly wrapping up, the story concluded that the Journal’s servers “were not breached,” the story was fixed, the FBI had been notified and “alterations appear to be limited to that story.”

Not much to see here folks, right?

That’s the impression. But why is the Journal’s story so different from that in the Santa Fe New Mexican?

Hoax or cyberattack?” was the New Mexican’s headline on a much longer, much more interesting story by Patrick Malone, which said:

Hackers apparently commandeered the Albuquerque Journal’s mobile app Wednesday morning, giving top billing to a story that expressed support for the Islamic extremist group ISIS and warned citizens of Albuquerque that their personal secrets were being collected through mobile devices, with plans to expand the havoc to other locations.

“You’ll see no mercy infidels. We are already here, we are in your PCs, in each house, in each office. With Allah’s permission we begin with Albuquerque,” the post said.

. . .“While the us (sic) and its satellites are bombing the Islamic State, we broke into your home networks and personal devices and know everything about you,” the post said.

It’s unlikely the Journal’s Christmas Day story was very reassuring to anyone who on Wednesday had seen the mobile app described by the New Mexican.

The New Mexican story even included a screen shot of the alleged breach, showing  a dark, scarf-shrouded head with the caption “I love ISIS.” Here’s more from the New Mexican’s description of the altered story:

The story carried the headline “CHRISTMAS WILL NEVER BE MERRY ANY LONGER.” It featured a photo-illustration of a man whose face was covered by a scarf along with the words “CyberCaliphate” and “i love isis,” an apparent reference to the Islamic extremist group Islamic State, whose beheadings of Western journalists among other acts of terror spurred the U.S. to wage airstrikes in parts of Syria the group controls.

. . .Since at least September, news organizations globally have reported ISIS’ plans to launch a “cyber caliphate” attack targeting technology in the U.S. with hacking using encoded software that makes identifying the culprit responsible difficult.

Since the New Mexican story was so different from the Journal’s routine-sounding one, I checked the Journal’s online site to see if further explanation was available.

At the time of this posting, there was no update on the Journal’s story, just the tiny article that had been posted 20 hours before, identical to the print version that had been buried inside the paper’s D section. No mention of the ominous photo illustration or the threats that had been made. And there was no Journal response to this comment from a reader, posted at the end of the Journal’s story online:

Actually guys, I would check what you sent to your AP feed. I don’t think the attack was limited to just one article.

Another point: There’s a discrepancy between the Journal and the New Mexican on which story was affected by the alteration. The Journal story said the affected article was Wednesday’s report by Michael Coleman about a 43-year-old police slaying case in which one of the alleged killers is still alive and in Cuba.

According to the New Mexican, “The posting was removed at about 9 a.m. and replaced with a story that bore the headline “Bonuses for APD brass draw fire.” That’s a different story.

The Journal’s report did not describe the “alteration” except to say that it “purported to be a threat from the radical group ISIS.”

“The story was removed and the website was put back up. . .” the Journal said.

The Journal story included nothing about “an ominous proclamation to citizens of Albuquerque,” which is how the New Mexican characterized the hacker’s words. From the New Mexican story, which starts off quoting the hackers:

“We know all personal data of Albuquerque locals: Where you live, what you eat, your diseases and even your health insurance cards,” (the altered site) said.

The unknown author of the post characterized Christmas Eve 2014 as a day when lives of residents of Albuquerque will forever change: “You will look around more often, will call up your children more often, think of your security more often, but that won’t help you.”

Granted, this is potentially disturbing stuff. But it’s doubtful the Journal’s downplay treatment stems from editorial concern that a more thorough report might frighten readers.

The Journal’s treatment of its hacking incident is similar to its response to “For the Record” corrections and other things that might be construed as embarrassing or “bad publicity” for the Journal – brief and lacking detail.

To its credit, the Journal was upfront about a recent billing scam, putting a teaser about it on the front page and warning callers about the scam via a phone recording. But a couple of years ago, the Journal had a problem and buried it inside the C section of the paper, which was noted by ABQJournalWatch.

This time, the Journal’s report on its hacking incident is restrained to the point of raising more questions, which ends up shortchanging the reader.

At the least, the Journal could have had a more interesting story if it had been more forthcoming.

At the worst, the Journal forfeited a chance to reassure those who had been disturbed by what the hackers put up on the site. A fuller report would at least have given the impression the Journal was really looking into the incident, which likely was most disturbing to those who saw it Wednesday on their mobile phones.

Those who didn’t see it Wednesday, but read the New Mexican’s account, are no doubt wondering why the Journal’s editors felt they needed to withhold information, why they felt a need to “hide” some of the facts. Newspapers and other media in the past have chosen to show restraint when covering gang activity, so as not to encourage gang members by giving them publicity. If the editors felt publicity would encourage the hackers, and were downplaying the story for that reason, possibly believing it a hoax, the story could have stated as such.

The Journal didn’t even say whether the paper was investigating further. One can only hope the state’s leading newspaper put more effort into the breach investigation than it did into its reporting of that breach.

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2 Comments so far ↓

  • Roland Penttila

    And, when you use the term “leading paper,” I assume you are referring to the largest circulation rather than “to lead” which might imply journalistic leadership and “showing the way.” Right?

  • Denise Tessier

    Roland, I should have put “leading” in quotes as you did and as I have in the past, because in this context (as in the past) it is used to parrot what the Journal calls itself — quite an ideal and obviously difficult to uphold. See this previous JournalWatch post: http://civicpolicy.com/journalwatch/?p=6800
    I appreciate your comment.

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