Chinese blamed for Gmail hacking

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The Independent Tech

Google has blamed China for a recent hacking attack on its Gmail system, which it says targeted “hundreds” of accounts, including Chinese political activists, military personnel and journalists, among others.

Senior US government officials, as well as some in South Korea and several other Asian nations, are also thought to have been in the hackers’ sights during the attack. The internet giant said it believes the scam “originated from Jinan”. However, in a blogpost, Eric Grosse of Google’s Security Team could not say who, specifically, was behind it.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said it could not accept any accusations over the hacking attacks, adding that the implication that it had helped support such activities were unfounded.

The company has an acrimonious relationship with China and, in January last year, revelations that a similar attack had been perpetrated – mainly against human rights activists – added to the growing fight between the two over online freedom. And Chinese officials were angered when, in early 2010, the US search company refused to censor internet searches with Google pulling out of the country soon after.

Given the potentially huge market in China, Google was thought to be keen to one day patch up relations. But, recently, executives have been more scathing in their criticism of China. Earlier this month, Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt denounced the country’s record on freedom during an appearance at a Google-organised conference.

In his blogpost, Mr Grosse wrote: “The goal of this effort seems to have been to monitor the contents of these users’ emails, with the perpetrators apparently using stolen passwords to change peoples’ forwarding and delegation settings.”

He noted that the company's internal systems had not been affected and that the Gmail system had not itself been compromised. “Google detected and has disrupted this campaign to take users’ passwords and monitor their emails. We have notified victims and secured their accounts. In addition, we have notified relevant government authorities,” he wrote.

It is thought that the attackers managed to steal passwords through phishing attacks – emails which fool the user into handing over personal information – and malware, which involves planting malicious software on a user’s computer. Google could not say whether any British accounts were among those affected.

Earlier today, a Google spokesman said: “We think users should be aware of the disturbing campaign we’ve uncovered to collect user passwords and monitor user email. Our focus now is on protecting our users and making sure everyone knows how to stay safe online.

“To feel comfortable openly communicating ideas and opinions on the web, people need to know how to protect their information.”

In his blogpost, Mr Grosse advised Google users to use a “phone and second password on sign-in”, adding that some accounts involved in this attack had been protected by the system. He also warned users to check email settings for suspicious forwarding addresses or delegated accounts.