China rejects blame for Gmail attack
June 2nd, 2011 - 11:48 UTC
by Andy Sennitt.

China said today it was “unacceptable” to blame it for a cyberspying campaign which Google said had targeted the Gmail accounts of senior US officials, journalists and Chinese activists. The comments marked the latest salvo in a battle between the Chinese government and Google dating back to last year when the US Internet giant revealed it had been the victim of a separate China-based cyberattack.

“To put all of the blame on China is unacceptable,” foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters. “The so-called statement that the Chinese government supports hacking attacks is a total fabrication… It has ulterior motives.”

Google said on Wednesday that it was hit by a cyberspying campaign that appeared to have originated in Jinan, capital of the eastern Chinese province of Shandong. The company did not specifically point the finger of blame at Chinese authorities. “We recently uncovered a campaign to collect user passwords, likely through phishing,” Google security team engineering director Eric Grosse said in a blog post. “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 said.

Those affected included senior US government officials, Chinese political activists, military personnel, journalists and officials in several Asian countries, mainly South Korea, Grosse said. “Google detected and has disrupted this campaign to take users’ passwords and monitor their emails,” he said. “We have notified victims and secured their accounts,” he added. “In addition, we have notified relevant government authorities.”

The “phishing” ruse used to trick Gmail users into revealing account names and passwords reportedly involved sending booby-trapped messages that appeared to come from legitimate associates, friends or organisations. The White House is investigating the situation but has no reason to believe that Gmail accounts of senior government officials were hacked, an official told AFP.

Briefing reporters on a new White House strategy statement about cyber-security on Tuesday, the Pentagon did not rule out a military response if the United States was hit by an online attack. “A response to a cyber-incident or attack on the US would not necessarily be a cyber response,” Pentagon spokesman Colonel Dave Lapan said.

Google said the California-based firm’s systems and servers were not attacked. There was no indication whether the Gmail spying campaign was related to the China-based cyberattack on Google that prompted the company early last year to stop bowing to Internet censors and reduce its presence in the country.

Google, whose motto is “Don’t Be Evil”, had initially threatened to close its Chinese operations altogether because of censorship and cyberattacks it said originated from China. At that time, Beijing virulently denied any state involvement in the cyberattacks that Google said targeted email accounts of Chinese human rights activists, saying such claims were “groundless”.

Beijing tightly controls online content in a vast system dubbed the “Great Firewall of China”, removing information it deems harmful such as pornography and violent content, but also politically sensitive material. Noting that China too had been a victim of cyberattacks, Mr Hong said: “The Chinese government always disapproves of criminal activities including hacker activities and other activities that impair the Internet.” The spokesman added: “We punish these activities in accordance with law.”