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Hacker without a cause scores with Harper 'breakfast incident' hoax
OTTAWA - There are hackers with a cause, like those who broke into East Anglia University computers supposedly to expose scientific double-dealing on climate change.
And there are political hackers who just like to have a little fun — especially at the expense of a politician they don't like.
That's the likely explanation for the latest breach in cyber world, this time on the Conservative party website, which carried an alert Tuesday morning claiming Stephen Harper had been helicoptered to Toronto General Hospital "after an incident at breakfast."
"He was eating breakfast with his kids when a piece of hash-brown lodged in his throat, blocking air from reaching his lungs," the item reported.
"We are awaiting any further word of his condition from the doctors and staff of TGH, and wish the best to him and his family."
The false report was eventually removed from the website, but not before rookie Tory MP Chris Alexander tweeted to all and sundry: "Prime Minister Rushed to Hospital After Breakfast Incident."
Alexander quickly apologized for spreading the made-up news, explaining his Twitter account was linked to the party's website.
The hoax sent newsrooms in Ottawa scurrying, although a careful reading of the release should have raised questions. Why would Harper be in Toronto on Tuesday morning with his children during a school day, when he had been in Ottawa for the budget speech late Monday afternoon?
The PM's spokesman Dimitri Soudas set the record straight: "He took his daughter Rachel to school this am, came into work and I'm currently sitting across from him," he emailed The Canadian Press at 9:07 a.m.
The incident comes at a time when hacking for fun, mischief, malice and profit has been much in evidence around the world.
In January, Ottawa acknowledged that hackers had gained access to its networks at Finance and Treasury Board and was forced to curtail use of the Internet to guard against further breaches.
And in recent weeks, a hacker collective called LulzSec has claimed credit for launching cyber assaults on Sony's PlayStation Network, obtaining personal client information, as well as hacking into game developer Nintendo.
The publicity may have spawned imitators, such as the similarly named LulzRaft, who claimed responsibility and plaudits for the Harper hoax.
Analysts say the motivation for hackers runs the gamut from just plain hijinks to political activism and dirty tricks — often referred to as "hacktivism" — to corporate espionage.
Most computer systems are vulnerable, says Victor Beitner, head of the Toronto start-up Cyber Security Canada.
"These are regular events that we all have to get used to. Basically they can go in, bring a server down, run a piece of code and take over the server. They can do whatever they want at that point.
"It's not hard. All it takes is knowing how to use Google and it's all there for you," he added.
Beitner said the Canadian government lags behind most advanced nations in spending on cyber security. Last October, the federal government announced a five-year, $90-million strategy, while other countries are spending billions, he said.
Conservative party communications director Fred DeLorey could not be reached for an interview on Tuesday's security lapse, but forwarded an email response.
"Today there was an unauthorized access of our website in which a false story was posted," he wrote. "Our database and email systems were not affected. The issue is being resolved."
By Tuesday afternoon, however, the party's website had been taken down.
As for LulzRaft, boredom may be behind the latest hoax.
On Monday, he tweeted "we're kinda bored..." But soon followed up with: "Working on a nice juicy release. This one may piss off a few of them Canadians."
After he scored with the release Tuesday morning, LulzRaft boasted: "So everyone like our little Harper rumour. To clarify: we never said he was dead, just that he was rushed to hospital."