The last time I felt something like my reaction now was when burglars broke into our home. My husband and I had been married only a few months, and had left the house locked while we went out to dinner. When we returned, we immediately saw the broken window in the dining room, drawers pulled open and clutter on the first floor and the bedrooms upstairs. We called the police, but the items that were missing were never found.
This week, several websites in the PBS family were breached. A bogus story appeared on a NewsHour blog saying the late rapper Tupac Shakur had been found alive in New Zealand. A group, saying they were angered by a documentary on WikiLeaks produced by our fellow PBS program Frontline, claimed responsibility. Our technology and online teams worked madly from the moment they discovered the intrusion to restore the site, spread the word through social media that the story was fake and patch up security. On Monday afternoon, hackers struck PBS sites again, forcing the NewsHour to sidestep silencing efforts and publish elsewhere on the Web instead of our own site. A considerable amount of damage was done by these attacks; fixing it wasn’t quick or easy to do.
My first instinct, besides selfishly worrying about any release of personal information, was to brush the whole thing off as “just the way the Web works.” Compared to attacks on the Pentagon and huge international corporations, our breach is pretty small potatoes. I told colleagues this is something we all have to get used to, “it’s the new world we live in.” But the more I have thought about it, the more I’ve realized if that’s the case, it’s a pretty unsettling world. The fact that someone, or a group of people, can, by a few clicks on a keyboard, destroy the work of a national news organization, create headaches, if not havoc, in trying to get things up and running again, is a disturbing development.
If we were a newspaper and someone threw a small bomb through the window, crippling our printing press and shutting down operations until we could get a replacement, we’d call the police. But what’s the equivalent of 911 when a cyber attack happens? Who will reimburse us for lost man and woman hours and reports that didn’t get published when actual news was breaking? And will it undermine the trust our viewers and readers place in us? How to place a value on that? This breach wasn’t done to steal national secrets or money from us, but to express anger over the work of the free press. That work will go on. At Frontline and at the NewsHour, everyone is focused on getting on with their jobs covering the news, the most important developments in the nation and in the world. But we do so feeling violated by a stranger. I guess that makes us wiser, determined to work harder to protect the work we do. And I hope it doesn’t make us, or any other news organization, more cautious.
For Wednesday’s NewsHour broadcast, we’re working on a segment about the growing number of successful hacking attempts, and I plan to put some of these questions to our guests.