It appears the Trump administration is hell-bent on tightening the noose around journalists critical of him or his presidency. The American president’s relationship with the press has been acrimonious to say the least, with Trump repeatedly targeting journalists and news organizations which, in his words, give him “negative” coverage. But now the hostile relationship seems to have reached a dangerous precedent with Politico reporting that several prominent journalists have been warned by Google that their accounts could be the subjects of hacking attempts carried out by state-sponsored actors.
Several journalists, most of them working for left-leaning liberal media organizations, have admitted to having received warnings from Google that state-sponsored hackers are trying to steal their passwords and break into their inboxes. Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine said that he received the first warnings as soon as the election results came out in November, while longtime Russian expert Julia Ioffe, who now works for the Atlantic, also claimed to have received similar messages not more than two weeks ago.
Vox founder Ezra Klein said that he received a warning as recently as a few days back, while CNN senior media reporter Brian Stelter has reportedly been receiving similar warnings for months now. Other reporters who have received warnings include New York Times national security correspondent David Sanger, Times columnist Paul Krugman and Yahoo Washington bureau chief Garance Franke-Ruta.
And while Google has mentioned forthrightly in certain instances that it suspects the hackers are “state-sponsored” — although it doesn’t yet name which state — some journalists who have received the warnings believe that Russian hackers are the ones orchestrating these break-in attempts.
The fear for many journalists is that after having meddled with the elections and having possibly undermined it, Russia is now hoping to undermine the press in the United States.
“The fact that all this started right after the election suggests to me that journalists are the next wave to be targeted by state-sponsored hackers in the way that Democrats were during it. I worry that the outcome is going to be the same: Someone, somewhere, is going to get hacked, and then the contents of their gmail will be weaponized against them — and by extension all media.”
What’s worse, journalists contend, is that the Trump administration would hardly take notice of such hacking attempts, and instead of protecting the journalists, the American President might even encourage such attacks.
Not long ago, after some reporters fact-checked, dismissed and even ridiculed White House’s claim that Donald Trump’s inauguration ceremony attracted the largest crowd ever drawn by an American president, Trump had doubled down on his warnings to reporters and media organizations, even going on to say during an address at CIA headquarters that he will make sure that they “are going to pay,” as reported by the New York Times.
On its part, Google says that it has been sending out warnings to journalists because of “an abundance of caution,” and that such warnings do not necessarily mean that their accounts have already been hacked.
“Since 2012, we’ve notified users when we believe their Google accounts are being targeted by government-backed attackers,” said a Google spokesperson in a statement.
“We send these warnings out of an abundance of caution — they do not indicate that a user’s account has already been compromised or that a more widespread attack is occurring when they receive the notice.”
However, it is quite clear that the potential cyber threat to journalists looms larger than ever under the new administration and journalists would do well to keep themselves protected. One good news is that secret well-wishers hoping to help journalists circumvent the hacking attempts also exist in abundance, with Jonathan Chait having claimed that he was “contacted over email by a stranger who offered to help by giving an encryption key to protect me from hackers. He would not give me his name, meet me or talk on the phone, despite repeated requests.”
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