China’s foreign minister has denied the suggestion that the country’s government lay behind a succesful hack on web giant Google’s hosted email service.
Yesterday, Google reveal that it had suffered an attack targetting specific hosted email accounts of government officials, political activists and journalists, and that it appeared to originate in China’s Jinan province.
In a statement, Eric Grosse, the engineering director of Google’s security team, said that the attack "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."
"Google detected and has disrupted this campaign to take users’ passwords and monitor their emails. We have notified victims and secured their accounts," he wro
Google did not explicitly accuse the Chinese government of any involvement in the attack. Nevertheless, China’s foreign minister Hong Lei told the Associated Press that it was "unacceptable" to put all the blame for the attacks on China.
"The so-called statement that the Chinese government supports hacking attacks is a total fabrication. It has ulterior motives," he said.
The attack was based on a phishing scam, Google revealed. An email that seemed to be from a known contact would invite email users to enter their account log in details, which would then be stolen. The nature of the attack suggests that the perpertrators wanted to read the users’ emails, not steal money.
The fact that South Korean targets were included in the attack is noteworthy. Previous cyber attacks that have been linked – fairly or otherwise – to the Chinese government have appeared to target Tibetan independence activists. According to the Ashar Aziz, CEO of security company FireEye, the ‘democracy activists’ that Google said were the target of the cyber attack it suffered in 2009 in fact referred to Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama himself.
However, information security attacks seem to be a growing feature of the conflict between North and South Korea. Last month, the South accused the North of a cyber attack on one of its largest banks. Observers questioned how it would be possible for North Korea, whose technological infrastructure lags much of the rest of the world, to launch such a sophisticated attack.
Yesterday, a North Korean ‘defector’ told a cyber security conference in Seoul that North Korea is rapidly growing its cyber warfare capabilities, and is offering talented young computer experts the opportunity to study abroad to increasr their skills.
The Google incident follows new that the Pentagon is ready to catagorise cyber attacks as acts of war, possibly opening the door for a military response to cyber attacks. A military official was quoted in the Wall Street Journal saying: "If you shut down our power grid, maybe we will put a missile down one of your smokestacks."