A highly sophisticated hacking operation that led to the leaking of hundreds of emails from the Climatic Research
Unit in East Anglia was probably carried out by a foreign intelligence
agency, according to the Government's former chief scientist. Sir David
King, who was Tony Blair's chief scientific adviser for seven years
until 2007, said that the hacking and selective leaking of the unit's
emails, going back 13 years, bore all the hallmarks of a co-ordinated
intelligence operation - especially given their release just before the
Copenhagen climate conference in December.
The emails were stolen from a backup computer server used by the University of
East Anglia. They contained private discussions between climate scientists
that have embarrassed those involved, particularly Professor Phil Jones, who
has stepped down from his post as head of the unit pending an independent
inquiry into whether there is any evidence of scientific misconduct. He is
not implicated in the hacking.
In an interview with The Independent, Sir David suggested the email leaks were
deliberately designed to destabilise Copenhagen and he dismissed the idea
that it was a run-of-the-mill hacking. It was carried out by a team of
skilled professionals, either on behalf of a foreign government or at the
behest of anti-climate change lobbyists in the United States, he said.
"A very clever nerd can cause a great deal of disruption and obviously
make intelligence services very nervous, but a sophisticated intelligence
operation is capable of yielding the sort of results we've seen here,"
Sir David said.
"Quite simply, it's the sophistication of the operation. I know there's a
possibility that they had a very good hacker working for these people, but
it was an extraordinarily sophisticated operation. There are are several
bodies of people who could do this sort of work. These are national
intelligence agencies and it seems to me that it was the work of such a
group of people," he said.
More than 1,000 emails, and some 2,000 documents, were stolen from a
university back-up server where remote access is difficult. This represents
a small fraction of the total number of emails for the period from 1996 to
2009, suggesting they had been selected for the most incriminating phrases
relating to possible scientific misconduct and breaches of the Freedom of
Information Act. The leak of the emails in the weeks running up to the
climate change conference in Copenhagen appeared to be carefully timed to
destabilise the meeting.
"I don't think that it's a coincidence that the stealing of the emails
from the individuals involved in East Anglia was put out for publication one
month before Copenhagen. That wasn't a coincidence," Sir David said. "The
emails date back to 1996, so someone was collecting the data over many
years. It looks like possibly the work of an intelligence service. What it
was was a very well co-ordinated part of a campaign. It was a difficult
piece of work to get that done.
"I've no inside knowledge except for the fact that I did work with our
[intelligence] agencies, and the American agencies, that I have some
experience," he added.
The existence of the stolen emails came to light on 17 November when someone
tried to load them onto the RealClimate website run by climate scientists,
including Gavin Schmidt of Nasa's Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Dr
Schmidt said that the hackers were using a legitimate computer based in
Turkey as a proxy server but the attack could have been launched from
another computer anywhere in the world.
He attempted to disable the hacking operation as it was taking place, but was
prevented several times before finally succeeding because the hackers had
penetrated deep into the website's database software. This required
considerable skill and knowledge which an opportunistic hacker would not
have had, he said. "That requires some kind of monitoring-tool set-up
and required them to have more access than you would get by simply logging
into the blog," Dr Schmidt said.
Two days after the attempted RealClimate hack, the file of stolen emails
appeared on a server used by a company called Tomcity operating from the
Russian city of Tomsk in Siberia. However, again, the uploading could have
been done by someone operating a proxy server anywhere else in the world.
Experts have suggested that loading the email file onto a Tomsk computer
server may have been a clumsy attempt to lay a trail to the door of the
Russian intelligence service, which has since denied any involvement in the
hacking incident. Some commentators in Russia have said that China had more
to gain from destabilising the Copenhagen conference than Russia.
Sir David said, however, that it was not possible to dismiss the possibility
of Russia's involvement. "If it was a job done on behalf of a
government, then I suppose there is the possibility that it could be the
Russian intelligence agency," he said.
"If it was a maverick group then I suppose it could be the Americans, but
I am hazarding a guess as much as anyone else. The only thing is, I've
worked within government and I've seen this in operation," Sir David
added. "It was a sophisticated and expensive operation. In terms of the
expense, there is the American lobby system which is a very likely source of
finance. Right now, the American lobbyists are a very likely source of
finance for this, so the finger must point to them," he said.
Norfolk Constabulary is conducting an investigation into the hacking but said
yesterday it would not comment on speculation that a foreign intelligence
agency was involved. The University of East Anglia also said that it could
Cyber crime: The 21st century threat
*Espionage once conjured images of lonely spooks on foreign assignations
during the height of the Cold War. Not any longer. The rise of capitalism, a
free-market economy and an interconnected digital world have changed those
terms of engagement.
Last week Hillary Clinton issued a warning to China and Russia to tighten up
their internet security amid a growing threat of international cyber crime. "We
cannot afford in today's interconnected world to have too many instances ...
where companies' accounts can be hacked into," she said. It came after
Google threatened to end its operations in China following what it described
as a "sophisticated and targeted" cyberattack on Google, Adobe and
20 other US companies.
More recently MI5 has accused China of setting up so-called "honeytraps"
with a view to obtaining sensitive commercial secrets from top UK companies.
According to The Sunday Times, promotional gifts handed out at
business trade shows included cameras and memory sticks have allegedly been
found to contain bugs that provide the Chinese with remote access to users'
Estonia, too, has been a victim of cyber crime. In 2007 it was subject to a
three-week cyber attack that saw hackers permeate firewalls and infiltrate
websites of banks and political institutions, in a move that threatened to
wipe out the country's digital infrastructure. Nato has now established a
cyber-defence centre in the region and the FBI has despatched a computer
Last year, Russian hackers were accused of a sophisticated cyber attack which
temporarily shut down two social networking sites in order to silence a
Georgian blogger critical of Moscow's policies.
Dr Rajendra Pachauri
*With his swept-back hair and wispy beard, Dr Rajendra Pachauri looks every
inch the climate change visionary. And as chairman of the United Nation's
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change who accepted a Nobel Peace Prize
alongside Al Gore in 2007 he has become an international figurehead in the
battle against global warming and one of the most powerful figures at the
Copenhagen summit. But a spate of controversy over recent IPCC research
papers and a resurgent mood among challengers to the theory of man-made
climate change have led many to wonder who, exactly, he is.
According to the "brief" two-page CV on his personal website, Dr
Pachauri, 68, juggles his UN role with his position as chief executive of
The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) which has strong historic ties
(although not for the past decade) with the Tata Group, India's largest
privately-owned corporation which also owns Jaguar, Land Rover and
steelmaker Corus in the UK. His critics say the other high-profile positions
he holds - more than 20 - with banks, universities and think
tanks could pose potential conflicts of interest with his UN role. Among his
many directorships was one from 1999-2003 with the Indian Oil Corporation.
Dr Pachauri says he receives no money for these roles.
Yet he began his career as an engineer working with the Diesel Locomotive
Works in Varanasi. Today, despite cooling relations with the Government, he
is one of India's most famous figures, inhabiting the exclusive Golf Links
area of Delhi where Lakshmi Mittal, Britain's richest man, owns a house and
where, despite owning his own electric car, he was photographed this week
being chauffeur-driven on the one-mile journey to his offices in a 1.8-litre
Perhaps most intriguingly, the cricket-loving environmentalist showed yet
another side to his personality with the publication this month of a raunchy
novel, Return to Almora, about an ageing academic looking back over
his spiritual and sexual journey through life.