FBI Investigating Gmail Attacks Attributed To China

U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton called the phishing campaign "very serious," while Chinese officials say it's unacceptable to blame China.
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Google's report that the Gmail accounts of government officials, human rights activists, military personnel, and journalists have been targeted by a phishing campaign from China has gotten the attention of U.S. authorities. The Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the White House National Security Council are all participating in an investigation of the cyber attack.

U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton confirmed the FBI's involvement in remarks a Thursday press briefing and said that an investigation is underway. "[W]e are obviously very concerned about Google's announcement regarding a campaign that the company believes originated in China to collect the passwords of Google email account holders," she said. "Google informed the State Department of this situation yesterday in advance of its public announcement. These allegations are very serious."

Google said that hundreds of Gmail accounts had been affected, and the White House told the Associated Press that no official U.S. government email accounts were accessed. However, according to an unidentified source cited by The Washington Post, the personal Gmail account of one Cabinet-level official was compromised.

Chinese officials have bristled at Google's report. In a Thursday press conference, Hong Lei, spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry, characterized Google's claims as fabrications with an ulterior motive. He stressed that the Chinese government firmly opposes hacking and that China itself is the victim of hackers.

Google declined to elaborate on its motives for publicizing the attack. The company on Wednesday said that "being open about these security issues helps users better protect their information online."

That's an unusual position given that companies have traditionally shied away from discussing security issues for fear of brand damage and embarrassment. It's even more unusual given how sensitive Chinese authorities are to criticism, how precarious Google's position in China is after challenging China's censorship policy last year, and how dependent foreign companies are on the goodwill of Chinese authorities to operate in China.

Frank Kenney, a former Gartner analyst and current VP of global strategy at Ipswitch, said in a phone interview that such openness is becoming more common because people are less tolerant of undisclosed breaches.

If Google does have an ulterior motive, it's likely to be to pressure the U.S. government to take a more active role in defending U.S. companies in markets like China that present obstacles to fair competition. Google has asked for U.S. government support against censorship, but the government's response has been to ask companies to take responsibility.

Last year, following Google's announcement that it intended to stop censoring its search results in China, as required by Chinese law, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the U.S. would reinvigorate the Global Internet Freedom Task Force, founded in 2006, as a forum for addressing threats to Internet freedom but also urged U.S. Internet companies to oppose censorship.

"The private sector has a shared responsibility to help safeguard free expression," Clinton said. "And when their business dealings threaten to undermine this freedom, they need to consider what's right, not simply what's a quick profit."

Figuring out who's responsible for dealing with censorship may be as thorny an issue as figuring out who's responsible for dealing with security. Google is urging Gmail users to review their account settings to make sure they're secure, but Kenney suggested Google could do more to alert users when their accounts are accessed from an unfamiliar IP address or when their accounts have been configured to forward messages.

He also said companies need to look at their own infrastructure and policies if employees are using personal Gmail accounts to get work done. "Individuals use Gmail in the workplace quite frequently when they need to get around the file size or attachment limits that companies put on email," he said.

In order to assure that corporate communication can be governed, "you have to give people a way to get things done that they do every day," he said. "People will do what they need to do to be productive."

In this new Tech Center report, we profile five database breaches--and extract the lessons to be learned from each. Plus: A rundown of six technologies to reduce your risk. Download it here (registration required).