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Covering Shadows:The Media's Unraveling of Two Important Hacker Stories

There are two kinds of technology reporters -- those who work online, and those who don't. The two sides do not love one another -- and sometimes even seem to be spoiling for a fight.

This much was made clear after a Feb. 28 report by the London weekly Sunday Business asserting that hackers had "taken control" of a British military satellite, altered its course, and "demand[ed] money" to "stop interfering with it." The article went global when Reuters picked it up that same day .

The U.S. online tech press quickly trashed the story as the work of unsophisticated newbies.

"Where might you turn for the 'real' story?" MSNBC Interactive Producer Bob Sullivan wrote March 1. "Perhaps the Hacker News Network, which by Monday morning had thrown cold water on the report. In another example of how personal Web publishing has turned journalism on its ear, a wire service report proved less reliable than Space Rogue's HNN digest."

Sunday Business reporters lashed back, accusing the online critics of jumping the gun and publishing foolish errors of their own.

Sullivan's piece "beat the Pope for piety," said Carl Franklin, a Sunday Business tech reporter who did not write the original article. "None of them proved the story wrong so instead they took a rather sanctimonious line about the accuracy of the traditional media. Basically, all they were trying to do was say 'we are so much cleverer than you.' "

This mini-controversy provides an interesting case study of the challenge of reporting on hackers -- and of criticizing those who do.

'Completely off the wall'

The original hacker-satellite article, penned by Mark Watts, was quite a scoop for the 56,000-circulation weekly, which was launched a year ago by the company that owns The Scotsman.

"It was a completely new story," said Watts, the paper's chief news reporter, via e-mail. "We had uncovered an extraordinary breach in national security and as such was a story of great significance."

The article stated that the British Defense Ministry reported the security breach to Prime Minister Tony Blair, and the news "sent panic throughout the armed forces."

Watts' story was based entirely on "security sources" and an "intelligence source." The Defense Ministry and Scotland Yard issued no comments, though the latter agency said "the Investigation was at too sensitive a stage for any comment."

Reactions to Reuters' slightly reworded wire story were swift.

The Hacker News Network (HNN), a "computer underground" news site without "the biases of the mainstream media," cast its doubt the next day.

"The article does not mention who received the blackmail threats nor are their (sic) any verifiable quotes," HNN wrote.

"Considering the sensitive nature of this story one could assume that more than one news organization would have picked [it] up. ... This story will be treated as extremely suspect until it can be verified by a second source."

Tech/biz site ZDNet then published a denial from a British Defense Ministry spokesman, and it was strong:

"The story is completely off the wall. Hackers can't and have not accessed our satellites. It is impossible for a hacker to get into the system."

The spokesman further speculated that the Sunday Business reporter had confused satellite hacking with a different Scotland Yard case involving a hacker "accessing international sites."

Newsbytes' Steve Gold then wrote about his "investigations" into the report: "Newsbytes' sources suggest ... that the press office at London's Scotland Yard may have misconstrued the journalist's request for comment on the story, and was almost certainly referring to a separate investigation."

Gold did not identify or describe his sources (and he did not respond to questions for this article as of posting time).

HNN's doubts and the sharp ministry denial, MSNBC's Sullivan wrote, "leav[e] Reuters looking trigger-happy and 'garage journalist' Rogue sounding like the voice of reason."

Sullivan's piece, headlined "Credible Source: Hacker Web Site," came with a poll, asking readers whom they trusted the most for reports on hacking -- "a 'garage journalist' such as Space Rogue or mainstream media?" Space Rogue won, 40 percent to 15 percent (45 percent trusted no one).

But Sullivan's MSNBC critique contained an error in the first paragraph: that Reuters had reported that hackers wouldn't release the satellite until a ransom was paid. That mirrored HNN's assertion that the report said the satellite was being "held for ransom," but it didn't actually match the original Sunday Business/Reuters story, which had claimed simply that the hackers had demanded money to "stop interfering" with the orbiter.

"He had the piece in front of him!" said Sunday Business' Franklin, via e-mail. "Yet they claim the high ground. This kind of knocking is a rather annoying trend we've noticed among U.S. IT journalists."

Sullivan also included comments about the hack being "a nightmare scenario," and "very, very serious" as part of an overall quote from the Sunday Business article, as if they had been thoughts formulated by the Sunday Business reporter. But, in fact, the quotes had come from an anonymous source.

Neither Sullivan nor Mark Pawlosky, executive producer for business and technology at MSNBC Interactive, responded to e-mail queries for this article that were sent to them over a period of nine days.

The Sunday Business reporters did not appreciate having their work described as less credible than that of someone named "Space Rogue."

"[The MSNBC article] read like PR [for HNN]," Franklin said. "The hacker, who hides behind a pen-name, also put on his site that Reuters had since printed a retraction, but when I looked at it, it was a denial from our defense ministry," Franklin said.

"I agree with him [about] the MSNBC article," HNN Editor in Chief Space Rogue said by e-mail. "It contained no 'news' and was a complete and total puff piece saying how great my site was. Am I going to complain about this? No."

The HNN editor said that non-traditional, micro-budget online journalism operations such as his cannot get excited about the technical differences between "held for ransom" and "demanding money ... to stop interfering," or about the specific term that should be used to describe how Reuters updated its story with a strong denial in the lead.

"While the Reuters article may not officially be a retraction, it sure as hell looks like one to me," Rogue said. "The word 'retraction' seems to have a much more strict meaning among traditional journalists."

HNN also contributed a detailed technical analysis about the chances of "compromising a satellite by an external threat vector." The conclusion: "Remote, but not impossible."

'Managed to reprogram a satellite'

After the first round of debunking articles were written, online publications mostly forgot about the satellite hack story. But the British press didn't.

The tabloid Daily Mail published an article March 1 saying that "Police are hunting a computer hacker who is alleged to have targeted military bases and tried to blackmail defense chiefs."

The article picked up the Defense Ministry denial, but included a quote casting doubt on it. It also printed a vaguely worded elaboration by Scotland Yard:

"We can confirm that officers from the Metropolitan Fraud Squad are investigating allegations of a hacker believed to be targeting several different international sites, some of which may include military installations."

On March 4, the Daily Telegraph advanced the story the furthest, reporting that "[h]ackers suspected of seizing control of a British military communications satellite using a home computer, triggering a 'frenetic' security alert, [have] been traced to the south of England."

Quoting a "security source," the Telegraph reported that "hackers found a 'cute way' into the control system for one of the Ministry of Defense's Skynet satellites and 'changed the characteristics of channels used to convey military communications, satellite television and telephone calls.' "

The source told the paper that the hackers intercepted the link between the satellite's control center and the ground station. They "managed to reprogram a satellite control system," the source said. "In many ways, the clever thing was not to lose the satellite."

The article also asserted that Scotland Yard was receiving assistance from the U.S. Air Force, and that American hackers had tipped off investigators about potential suspects in Southern England.  

Contrary to the Sunday Business article, the Telegraph reported that the satellite had not been moved by the hackers.

"My sources insist they did not speak to the Mail, or anyone else," Watts said. "The ... piece[s] therefore seem to offer independent corroboration."

Corroboration, from online journalists or the British press, has been made difficult by the reliance on anonymous sources. Watts said anonymity is inevitable.

"This story was especially sensitive. No inside sources are going to allow themselves to be identified," he said. "This story met all the criteria that need to be fulfilled when basing an article on non-attributable sources."

'Fury about this story leaking'

On March 7, Sunday Business published a follow-up article accusing the Defense Ministry of going 'into overdrive last week to try to squash the story.'

"Our informed sources say that the MoD is simply not telling the truth, which the MoD has something of a track record for," Watts said.

On March 14, the paper reported that the Defense Ministry arrested one man in the satellite hacker case.

"There is utter fury about this story leaking," a "security source" told Watts. "Telephones are being tapped and monitored in a desperate mole-hunt. It is unclear who is behind this hacking, and the uncertainty is so worrying."

The Defense Ministry immediately told Agence France-Presse that "this story is nonsense."

On March 21, Sunday Business wrote that investigators are now hunting for an "insider" who helped hackers gain access to Britain's satellite control center at RAF Oakhanger in Hampshire. Again citing "security sources," the paper reported that the man previously arrested by the Defense Ministry was now out on bail, and that countries of the British Commonwealth that use British military satellites have demanded explanations from the government.

'What is the truth?'

So, did hackers alter the course of a British defense satellite and then demand a ransom?

Online tech reporters in the United States have their doubts.

"Oh, that's such B.S.!" blurted Adam Penenberg, a senior editor at Forbes and a veteran online reporter, when asked about the story.

"No one has proved the original story wrong. There have only been questions raised about its validity," said Space Rogue in an e-mail. "[But] while no one has proved the story wrong, no one has proved the story correct either. So who is correct? Whose story sticks? What is the truth?"

The truth, says the Sunday Business' Franklin, is that online tech sophisticates were far too quick and sloppy in discrediting an article by a print cousin.

"I am not doubting their knowledge of the subject," he said. "It's just that we have good sources too."