Google plans to let users know when government-sponsored hackers may be trying to hijack Google accounts.

Thomas Claburn, Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

June 5, 2012

3 Min Read

Google said it will begin warning users when it believes their accounts could be targeted by state-sponsored cyber attacks.

The company plans to post a pink warning banner below its black navigation bar when it has specific intelligence or indications from its own monitoring systems that a state-sponsored attacker may be attempting to hijack users' accounts.

Google warning

How can Google tell a country is behind a specific attack? Google won't say.

"You might ask how we know this activity is state-sponsored," said Google VP of security engineering Eric Grosse in a blog post, "We can't go into the details without giving away information that would be helpful to these bad actors, but our detailed analysis--as well as victim reports--strongly suggest the involvement of states or groups that are state-sponsored."

[ Google is dealing with a lot of security issues. Read Google Apps Security Beat By CloudFlare Hackers. ]

Grosse said that its warning does not necessarily mean that a user's account has been compromised. It just means you may be a target and that you should take steps to ensure your account is secure, he said.

Google will not say whether it will report on the cyber-activities of all countries, including the U.S. and Israel, or whether certain countries get a free pass. U.S. and Israeli involvement in the creation of the Stuxnet malware was recently confirmed in a New York Times report.

"We're going to decline to comment on the make-up of the countries that are involved," a Google spokesperson said in an email. "This is because these warnings are not a response to any particular attack or campaign. Our goal is to warn users and encourage good account security practices."

Such practices include enabling two-step authentication in Google Apps, choosing strong passwords, and keeping your software up-to-date, to name a few.

The one country sure to be included on the list of countries that Google monitors is China, a country mentioned in several Google posts about security issues in recent years, though never directly accused.

In January 2010, Google said it had "detected a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China that resulted in the theft of intellectual property from Google."

And in June 2011, Google warned of a campaign to collect Gmail passwords and said the attack "appears to originate from Jinan, China, affected what seem to be the personal Gmail accounts of hundreds of users including, among others, senior U.S. government officials, Chinese political activists, officials in several Asian countries (predominantly South Korea), military personnel and journalists."

Though Google did not directly accuse the Chinese government of involvement in these attacks, the Chinese government reacted as if it did. Following Google's Gmail attack warning, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said it was unacceptable to blame China.

On a related note, Google last month said that it would notify mainland China users of its Hong Kong-based search service "when they enter a keyword that may cause connection issues." Connection issues often happen in mainland China as a result of government-mandated censorship.

Employees and their browsers might be the weak link in your security plan. The new, all-digital Endpoint Insecurity Dark Reading supplement shows how to strengthen them. (Free registration required.)

About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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