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Google Points Finger At China Over Gmail Hacking

June 2, 2011

A sharp denial was issued from the Chinese government today after executives from Google accused China of attempting to steal the passwords of hundreds of Gmail accounts.

“We recently uncovered a campaign to collect user passwords, likely through phishing,” Google explained about the practice of computer users being tricked into giving up sensitive information.

It, “affected what seem to be the personal Gmail accounts of hundreds of users, including among others, senior US government officials, Chinese political activists, officials in several Asian countries (predominantly South Korea), military personnel and journalists.”

Reuters reports that Google has declined to comment on the specific methods used to obtain the information about the most recent hack, but public information, user reports and a third-party hacking blog called Contagio was used to determine the scope, targets and source of the attack, CNN Money reports.

Blaming China was “unacceptable,” Beijing officials fired back, pointing to further tensions in an already strained relationship with Google.

The hacking appeared to come from the Shandong province capital Jinan, Google said. Jinan is the base of one of six technical reconnaissance bureaus belonging to the People’s Liberation Army and a technical college US investigators last year linked to a previous attack on Google, reports the Associated Press (AP).

“China is firmly opposed to activities that sabotage internet and computer security, including hacking,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters Thursday. Hong continued by saying hacking was a global problem and Chinese networks had also been targeted by hackers, but he gave no specifics.

He said China was working to crack down on the problem, but he didn’t respond when asked whether it would investigate this specific incident. “Allegations that the Chinese government supports hacking activities are completely unfounded and made with ulterior motives,” Hong continued.

Google did not specify that the Chinese government was behind the attacks or say what might have motivated them, but a former US government official who served in China said he was fairly sure the Chinese government was responsible. He said it was a sign of Beijing’s fears that recent “Jasmine” uprisings, seen in the Arab world lately, could spread to China.

“I’m fairly certain it’s the Chinese government, and probably the PLA,” the former official, who asked that his name not be used, told Reuters. “There are all kinds of Internet issues going on now in China, and I think it’s largely driven by the Jasmine movement. China’s very afraid of that.”

Google has sent Gmail users a message urging them to, “please spend ten minutes today taking steps to improve your online security so that you can experience all that the internet offers — while also protecting your data.”

Providing several examples of how Gmail users can better protect themselves from phishing attacks on its blog, Google asked users to enable a setting that allows users to login to their accounts only after receiving a verification code on their phones. The company also suggested that users monitor their settings for suspicious forwarding settings.

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