Who Is Behind the Hacked Climate Emails? And When Will the Criminals Be Brought to Justice?

, former deputy director, Center for Science & Democracy | December 19, 2011, 12:20 pm EDT
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When a hacker (or hackers) released a second batch of emails stolen from scientists last month, the immediate question that sprang to my mind was, “Why haven’t we found them yet?” And now, after months of apparent inactivity, it seems that British authorities are taking a renewed interest in tracking down the criminals who are responsible, and the United States Department of Justice is also getting involved.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) originally put it quite nicely in a statement: “If this happened surrounding nuclear arms talks, we would have the full force of the western world’s intelligence community pursuing the perpetrators. And yet, with the stability of our climate hanging in the balance with these international climate treaty negotiations, these hackers and their supporters are still on the loose. It is time to bring them to justice.”

Norfolk Constabulary headquarters

The Norfolk Constabulary headquarters in Wymondham. Photo: Katy Walters

The Guardian reported last week that Norfolk police seized two laptops and a router from the home of Roger Tattersall, a British man who runs a blog that criticizes mainstream climate science. In a statement to The Telegraph, the police confirmed that the seizure was related to “the investigation into the taking of data from the UEA that started in November 2009.” According to Science, the police said in a statement that Mr. Tattersall is not a suspect, and by all accounts he seems to be cheerily complying with police requests.

In addition, on December 9, the U.S. Department of Justice asked Automattic Inc., which owns the blogging platform WordPress, to preserve all records associated with the accounts of three climate contrarians. (This UCS blog is also hosted by WordPress).

This is the first time I am aware of involvement by U.S. authorities. When contacted by UCS staff, a DOJ spokesperson declined to comment on the investigation.

In the United Kingdom, the Norfolk police department is handling the investigation into who stole the emails. It’s encouraging to me that they seem to be taking the case more seriously, as previous reports had indicated that they did not seem to have made the investigation a very high priority.

The BBC’s Richard Black first broke the story that some are questioning whether the resources the police have devoted to the investigation have been sufficient. Brendan DeMelle, writing on DeSmogBlog, published responses from the Norfolk Constabulary to several freedom of information requests which indicate the police spent just £80,905.11 on the investigation between November 2009 and February 2011.

Other freedom of information request responses found on the Norfolk Constabulary website show that the Norfolk police spent nothing at all on the investigation between March and the end of October 2011.

So, over the course of two years, the police spent £80,905.11 on the investigation. To put that in context: the annual approved budget of the Norfolk police department for the 2011-2012 fiscal year is £148,620,000. The 2010-2011 budget was £146,693,000.

Is the £80,905.11 spending figure a good measure of total investigative resources? It’s hard to know. A spokesperson for the constabulary told the Guardian that it was “relevant to note that the figures relate only to additional expenditure and do not include officer and staff time on the investigation, which is not routinely recorded.”

Then how many officers are working on the case? In a September 2011 response to one of the records requests, the police wrote, “There are currently no police officers or police staff, within Norfolk Constabulary, working full time on the investigation into the acquisition of data from the computers at the University of East Anglia Climatic Research Unit.”

Okay, so no officers were working around the clock to crack the case. It’s still possible that some officers were working part-time on the hacking (when not busy looking for rare chickens or stopping suspicious cyclists to crack down on bicycle theft). But this is not an acceptable nor sufficient commitment of resources by the Norfolk police to bring these criminals to justice.

It’s also possible that there are higher level British authorities involved. DeMelle adds that the  “Norfolk Constabulary invoked an exemption under the FOIA rules to refuse to confirm or deny whether other UK security services such as MI5 or MI6 have worked on the investigation. A statement from Norfolk police did confirm it is receiving ‘ongoing assistance’ from the UK’s domestic terrorism agency, the National Domestic Extremism Coordination Unit, and that it was helped early in the investigation by London’s Metropolitan Police. But the current status of their involvement – and how high a priority this investigation is for these agencies – is unclear.”

Additionally, according to an older Guardian article, “a group of officers from the counter-terrorism squad and Scotland Yard’s electronic crimes unit” were involved at one point in the investigation.

Hopefully, last week’s developments signal that the second release of stolen emails in November convinced U.S. and British authorities to escalate their efforts to figure out who is involved in these crimes.

Posted in: Global Warming, Scientific Integrity Tags: , , ,

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  • Tim

    It’s beautiful how you use freedom of information acts, and expect returns from them, and don’t even realize your own hypocrisy on this issue. The information that was either hacked, or at least still possibly leaked (how could you know for 100% sure it wasn’t? the same way people are 100% sure in their religious beliefs. blind faith, based on what you’ve been told.), it was contained on computers and systems that were paid for with taxpayer money. The scientists, who were also paid with taxpayer money, did everything they could to not release that data- data which was paid for by taxpayers.

    You defend their right to not publish that data, yet when someone ‘hacks’ or POSSIBLY ‘leaks’ that data, you use the same process which was denied by those scientists, which RESULTED in the ‘hack’/’leak’, to request information about the investigation on the identity of the ‘hacker’/’leaker’.


    • James

      Well said, Tim. Well said, indeed!

      The email “hackers” were not criminals. They were heros. And humanitarians.

    • Kerry

      Tim, it is interesting that you take the time to come here and critizize liberals.. or whatever you want to call scientists.

      The emails stolen were not considered science by any means. They are private conversations discussing research. In the end, there is continued neocon attack on the science behind climate change. They were stolen for the sole purpose to discredit research and make climate science look bad. Obviously this is an inside job and the perps probably are getting paid A LOT of money by big oil or another industrial competitor.

      The science clearly points to the cause of rapid climate disruption as MAN. There is LITTLE disagreement on this if you read the data, which I actually read. Don’t let the facts get in the way of your inquisition, however.


    • Carolyn Hart

      Tim, did you read the comment below distinguishing between what is a freedom of information request and what is stolen property? You must be able to distinguish between the two to make a cogent argument.

      There’s no hypocrisy here. The Freedom of Information Act should be used to elicit information from government to hold it accountable–not to attack researchers. And the illegal obtainment of emails, whether they were stolen or leaked by some miscreant, undermines science.

      Also, you keep talking about DATA – and the article talks about EMAILS. There is plenty of climate change data out there already, which I use in my own work. Please also figure out how to distinguish between DATA and SCIENTISTS EXPLORING IDEAS OF INTERPRETING THAT DATA over email. This article is about defending scientists right to have conversations with each other about what data might possibly mean. It’s a complicated concept which you clearly don’t quite get.

      Ridiculous. Subtlety is lost on you.

  • (I posted the following comment On the copy of this article at climatecrocks.com)

    You wrote: “The police have not indicated that Mr. Tattersall is a suspect,”

    It may just be bad grammar but it is also wrong.

    Police indicated that Mr. Tattersall is not a suspect.

    There is a clear and important difference.

    (At this point in time, there has been no correction.)

    • Michael Halpern

      Hi Bernd,

      When I wrote this piece, I had not seen a statement anywhere from the police regarding their consideration of Mr. Tattersall. I have since seen that Science magazine’s blog is reporting that the police statement did explicitly say that he is not a suspect, so I’ve made a change to the original post. Thanks for helping me clarify this.

      • The copy of this article on climatecrocs is still in error.

        FWIW: WUWT had the correct information on or before the 15th; 4 clear days before the date of your article here.

        “UPDATE: I’ve been in contact with Roger (Tallbloke) and he tells me that he is not a suspect, and that they’ll clone his hard drives and return the computers to him. – Anthony”

        When reporting on matters of alleged criminality, it is vital to report unambiguously and as accurately as possible at the time of publication. That means proper research. Blogs are unreliable. Contact the person or the Police directly. Getting it wrong can be very costly; not just financially. If you don’t have a relaible source of information about a matter of alleged criminality, then don’t write about that aspect.

        The original version of your article would not have been any worse had you omitted the suspect phrase.

        Thank you for your cooperation and time.

  • Biker Trash

    The UCS has often effectively used FIOA to obtain information that it considers useful to the general public.

    How many times over the past 4 to 5 decades has the UCS invoked FOIA and expected it to always be handled according to established Law of The Land?


    • Michael Halpern

      Thanks for the opportunity to comment on use of the Freedom of Information Act vs. the theft of emails. What we’re talking about here are individuals who stole and released thousands of emails that would have been exempt from disclosure under the FOIA law–not responsible citizens who submit open records requests.

      UCS has used FOIA many times to seek information to understand more about how and on what basis the government makes decisions. FOIA requests are an incredibly important tool to keep government accountable and honest. But exemptions to FOIA exist for a reason.

      Scientists need space to be able to question the ideas of other scientists. That’s how science works best: when they can pose questions, share rough drafts of papers and analysis, and openly challenge the ideas of others. Everyone deserves space to test out new ideas and theories.

      Also don’t forget that we’re not talking about scientific data—-we’re talking about personal correspondence among scientists who want to discover more about the world around us.

  • markus

    “”Hopefully, last week’s developments signal that the second release of stolen emails in November convinced U.S. and British authorities to escalate their efforts to figure out who is involved in these crimes.””

    You mean alleged crimes.
    You mean convinced U.S. and British authorities to gather information to make a case against the Climategate Email writers.

    I’ve seen plenty of assumptions from would be scientific minds over the last few days. It is very well possible that the leaker is not the target but those who have attempted to defraud science are.

  • Sam King

    Does anyone have a handle on what statutes apply in this case? It would seem that multiple jurisdictions could be involved depending on the source country/countries of the hacker(s)’ attack.

    • Andrew

      I believe in the US and in Canada they can use the laws designed for organized crime. In the US they are known as RICO laws. But I am not a lawyer.

    • Michael Halpern

      The jurisdictional questions you pose are very good—and not for me to answer, as that’s not my area of expertise. The emails were stolen from a British server, but they originated from the accounts of experts all over the world, and were posted on servers in Russia. It would be interesting to see a legal analysis of who could investigate the hackers and on what basis from an international perspective.