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Tracking down the 'Climategate' hackers

By Paula Newton, CNN
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Hackers behind Climate-gate
  • The search is on to find out who hacked into a UK climate research center's emails
  • Leads in Russia being investigated, but hackers increasingly difficult to locate
  • Environmental campaigner says skeptics use of emails has been "frighteningly successful"

London, England (CNN) -- Like its namesake Watergate, "Climategate" started with a break-in. But this one was a cyber theft.

IT security experts say hackers for hire likely broke into the email of climate researchers in rural England; and they knew what they were looking for. Key words like "trick" were as valuable as jewels.

Audun Josang IT security expert told CNN: "With the high stakes involved in the climate debate it had to happen that some climate research institutes' emails were hacked."

Now everyone wants to know how hackers got their hands on those emails.

Neal Watkins, from security software firm, Symantec, told CNN: "They got in via the Internet, via emails, via spam, via the Web face and the infrastructure. Once they are in, they walk the network."

The spam launches a spy program that scours any files and emails and it can use any server in the world. Last year Symantec deterred 1.6 million break-ins -- more than in the previous 17 years combined.

Watkins says the top attack countries are U.S., China and Russia. Links to Leads in Russia are being investigated in this break-in but servers are rotated all over the world to cover tracks.

The hacking threats are so damaging even NATO and Interpol are monitoring. And in the so-called "Climategate" affair the mystery continues.

With the help of Scotland Yard, local police say they are investigating. Security experts say the leak could involve a naive insider, a malicious insider or a break-in from the outside. Climate change skeptics say no matter how the emails were hacked the researchers had something to hide. Senator John Barrasso says he's heading to Copenhagen to find out.

"The skepticism continues, the suspicion continues and the emails add to it," he said.

"And at a time when there is the amount of unemployment there is in the U.S., people do not want to make an investment in a way that is going to hurt jobs."

Environmental campaigner, Richard Littlemore acknowledges the emails have emboldened those who deny climate change.

"They have been frighteningly and remarkably successful. This at a time when the Arctic ice shelf is collapsing for the first time in recorded history."

Littlemore added: "Most of this conversation is not about science, it's about public relations. They want to talk about the emails because they don't want to talk about the evidence."

The emails were not state secrets. The broad consensus among climate scientists is that the climate is warming and humans are playing a significant role. But given the amount of energy devoted to the emails. The episode has taught us this. Hacking is criminal but it can also be influential.