In NYT Story on Russian Troops, Source Code Leaked Too Much

Phone numbers of soldiers, others exposed, putting at risk those who criticized war and Putin
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 12, 2023 8:07 AM CST
NYT Story Left Russian Troops' Phone Numbers Exposed
Stock photo.   (Getty Images/Im Yeongsik)

In late September, the New York Times published an interactive report that effectively spied on Russian soldiers' unauthorized calls home from the front lines of the Ukraine war, revealing a "crisis in morale" and "an inside view of a military in disarray." That story likely wasn't good for Russian troops, as many of them criticized the war, and in more ways than one: Motherboard now reports that the Times article inadvertently exposed the phone numbers of not only the soldiers, but also the family members they were speaking to at home.

The leak came via metadata in the article's source code that showed the phone numbers and notes for fact-checkers, all of which Motherboard discovered last week—months after the story had been published. Security experts say this information was sloppy journalism by the Times and could be a danger to troops, as many of the soldiers, who were identified by first name only in the story, were frank in slamming the war and Russian President Vladimir Putin himself. "The exposure potentially put the people at risk of reprisal from their own government and other third parties," Motherboard notes.

"The Times says it spent almost two months on translating the recordings—well, it should have spent another 20 minutes on scrubbing the metadata," Thomas Rid, a professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins, tells Motherboard, which found out about the leak after a security researcher sent up a red flag. Charlie Stadtlander, a spokesman for the Times, at first said the metadata had only been live on the site for a few hours, though he later walked that back. "Before publication, we worked to remove identifying information from the story," he says in a statement. "We later learned that some buried metadata was live on the site and took prompt steps to remove it."

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Meanwhile, several outlets, including the Times, reported last week on another story about Russian soldiers and their cellphones: specifically, how using them had imperiled the troops, as signals from the banned phones had given away the soldiers' locations to Ukrainian forces. Russia's Defense Ministry acknowledged as much after a strike on New Year's Eve in the Ukrainian city of Makiivka that left them with dozens of losses. Much more here on "a piece of technology that, however mundane and ubiquitous in daily life, can pose an existential threat in modern war." (More New York Times stories.)

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