More than 1,700 private e-mail messages were illegally nabbed from a university-based climate-science lab by computer hackers, with the apparent goal of discrediting the authors’ research on global warming just days before a major climate summit begins.
The incident is an unusual one. Though data breaches happen almost every week in higher education, most involve Social Security numbers or other university records, and the biggest concern is usually identity theft. In this case, personal e-mail messages of scientists were illegally obtained from a university server, and bloggers have been using quotes from the messages to argue that the scientists exaggerated their data on global warming.
In a statement issued Monday, officials from the University of East Anglia, in England, confirmed that the messages were stolen from a server in its Climate Research Unit. The university is working with law-enforcement officials to investigate the matter, and the server that was attacked has been taken offline, said the statement, signed by Simon Dunford, a university spokesman.
“The selective publication of some stolen e-mails and other papers taken out of context is mischievous and cannot be considered a genuine attempt to engage with this issue in a responsible way,” said the statement.
The scientists whose e-mail messages are now public say that their words are being twisted for political reasons. They argue that nothing in the messages discredits their findings.
“I think we’re looking at a really nasty smear campaign, and the people responsible are despicable,” said Michael E. Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University. “There’s nothing in here that calls into question the reality of the climate change.”
Next month world leaders will gather to discuss the contentious environmental-policy issues at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, in Copenhagen.