Climategate: Are Police Closing in on the Email Hacker?

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This is a Dec. 10, 2009 file photo showing the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. East Anglia, where stolen emails caused a global climate science controversy in 2009.

Before we move to the green news of 2012, let’s take a look at some holiday leftovers: like Climategate. This past November—right before the latest U.N. climate change summit—an unknown person or person released another batch of hacked emails from the databases of the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at Britain’s East Anglia University. As I wrote at the time, the impact of the release—two years after an initial collection of hacked emails was put on the Internet—was muted, in part because public focus on climate change had waned as well:

Climate scientists—especially when you quote selectively from emails they think are not for public viewing—can be hypersensitive to criticism and clannish. Within the climate science world, there are clearly differences of opinions on aspects of climate science, on the certainty of models and on the confidence we can have in any sweeping assessment of global warming. Those differences come out in the emails, sometimes very bluntly—but that to me isn’t evidence of some kind of international conspiracy, but rather the not always pretty process of science and collective decision-making happening in real time.

More than two years after the hacked emails were first released, however, there’s still one big question: who pulled off the hack? Some—especially skeptics who see the emails as evidence of a long-term conspiracy among climate scientists to sex up the data on warming—believe the hacker might be a whistleblower within CRU. Others think the hacker was purposefully cherrypicking emails and excerpts to embarrass climate scientists and build an unfair case against the consensus on manmade warming. But despite an investigation by British police that’s cost at least $8,000 so far, the hacker’s identity is still a mystery.

MORE: Climategate 2: A Weak Sequel

But as Leslie Kaufman reports in the New York Times, police may be closing in on a suspect:

In December, citing a request from British law enforcement, the Justice Department asked that Automattic, the parent company of the blog host, preserve three days of digital logs for three blogs where the links to the latest e-mails first appeared. In a raid in Leeds, England, the police also confiscated laptops from the home of one blogger; he says the police have told him that he is not a suspect.

The note, the encrypted file and the fresh signs of police interest have inspired musings on both sides of the climate divide.

The blogger in question is Roger Tattersall, who told the New York Times that he would have willingly cooperated with the police even without a warrant. It’s not clear yet what clues might have prompted the police to restart the dormant investigation, though as Kaufman notes, the email release this past November included some additional information that may have helped the cops narrow down their search:

November’s leaker left additional clues behind as well. Not much — an encrypted file and a note ending in what seemed to be a taunt — but enough to revive fervent speculation about what sort of person might be behind the stunt.

The note, somewhat cryptic, seemed to suggest that efforts to fight global warming siphoned money from worthy causes like fighting poverty. “Every day nearly 16,000 children die from hunger and related causes,” it said.

Then the note’s author seemed to dangle a challenge for hackers and programmers, saying that even though he was releasing 5,000 e-mails, “The rest, some 220,000, are encrypted for various reasons.”

“We are not planning to publicly release the pass phrase,” the note added coyly

MORE: Getting Past Climategate Syndrome

The bit about hunger echoes a familiar argument: that in a world where over 1 billion people are hungry and nearly 2 billion go without electricity, global warming can’t be our biggest priority. But it’s hardly a smoking gun, and unless the Norfolk constabulary has a few talented computer hackers of their own on the payroll—somehow I’m guessing not—I’m skeptical they’ll ever find their man or woman.

I also wonder whether it matters. The damage from Climategate—such as it is—has been done. The emails showed that climate scientists are human—sometimes dismissive of professional opponents, annoyed with work they think isn’t important and apparently also bad with passwords. The battle over the future of climate action will be fought politically—not so much in scientific journals. That’s a story for 2012—and beyond.

MORE: Why the Climate Bill Died