Gmail under attack
A Chinese cyber-attack on a jumpy America
Jun 2nd 2011 | from the print edition
THE more onerous internet security in the office becomes, the more attractive easy-to-use services such as Google’s Gmail. This paradox is at the heart of what looks like a big cyber-attack by China (or Chinese hackers) against the private e-mail accounts of hundreds of senior officials, military types and journalists from America and Asian countries, chiefly South Korea.
Google says it has “detected and disrupted” this campaign, first noted in February by a blogger, Mila Parkour. Unlike previous Chinese attacks on Google, which involved heavyweight cryptographic attacks on its software, this one was clever but simple. Targets received plausible-seeming “phishing” e-mails, often sent from faked State Department addresses, with a subject line such as “Fw: Draft US-China joint statement” and an attachment. Clicking on that produced a bogus Gmail screen. Anyone unwise enough to give their login and password would make their past and future e-mails, and contacts, available to the snooper.
Google has tense relations with the Chinese authorities. In 2010 it stopped co-operating with their censorship efforts, moving its servers to Hong Kong; it is struggling to renew licences it needs for its other operations (it still employs 500 people in China, many of them selling advertising). Now it is talking to the FBI.
But the target of the attack is Google’s customers. The Chinese government denies having any part in the scam, but the e-mails seem to have come from the eastern city of Jinan, home to a Chinese military cyberwarfare unit and a college blamed for other attacks on America. This one comes at a time when people there are already jumpy about electronic security. Lockheed Martin, the government’s main information-technology provider, said last week that it had experienced a “significant and tenacious attack”. A forthcoming Pentagon report says that cyber-attacks could in future prompt a military response. Shooting careless officials would be a start.