Google and the Chinese Phisherman

It’s like something out of a spy movie: On the 1st of June, Google announced that it had uncovered a “campaign to collect user passwords” that was aimed at the personal Gmail accounts of “senior US government officials, Chinese political activists, officials in several Asian countries (predominantly South Korea), military personnel and journalists.” The origin of these activities? Jinan, China.

Google outlined the details of the case in a blog post on Thursday, and offered reassurance to its customers along with tips on how to improve their security online. Google is naturally at pains to point out that its security has not been breached. Instead a few users have unwittingly given the hackers access to their accounts.

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The campaign in question almost certainly used a technique called “phishing” to collect the passwords. Essentially this tricks users into giving up their details by mimicking official Google emails and interfaces. You might expect the calibre of people targeted to be immune to such cheap tricks but, as Google’s post points out, “most people aren’t that tech savvy.”

Reading between the lines in the blog post isn’t too challenging – Google implies that the Chinese government are at the very least complicit in the snooping. They are at pains to lard their prose with “appears to” and “seems to” but their meaning is no less clear.

The Chinese government have, on cue, reacted with sputtering outrage. “Blaming these misdeeds on China is unacceptable,” a spokesman fumed at a hastily assembled press briefing. “Hacking is an international problem and China is also a victim. The claims of so-called support for hacking are completely unfounded and have ulterior motives.”

So much for the standard denial. We know, from a variety of different sources, that members of China’s security apparatus have either been complicit in or supportive of several major hacking attacks since 2002. At the end of last year Wikileaks revealed cables between American diplomats that discussed compelling evidence that an attack on Google’s servers in mid-2009 had been ordered by Li Changchun, China’s head of propaganda.

And there are literally dozens more examples, many of them summarised in a report by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission. One of the more brazen cases is an incident in April 2010 in which China Telecom “accidentally” redirected 18 minutes worth of web traffic through it’s own servers. Some of the traffic affected into and out of US government, military and corporate sites including Dell, Microsoft, IBM, and Yahoo. Whoops.

Of course the Chinese aren’t the only one in the game. In July 2010 a New York court ruled that Baidu, the Chinese search giant, had enough evidence to proceed in their case against – a US domain administration firm. Baidu accuse the company of “breach of contract, gross negligence, and recklessness” and claim that they failed to adequately protect the site from an attack which disabled and defaced the site for several hours in January 2010.

Although the Americans may have returned fire, or even started the fight, there’s a critical difference. The Americans don’t like their own radicals but, unless they turn to terrorism or crime, they tolerate them. The Chinese, on the other hand, routinely imprison, torture and execute their dissidents. Hacking into a Chinese activist’s Gmail account isn’t just an invasion of privacy — it can easily be a death sentence.

Until China ceases to be a ruled by a cabal of brutal autocrats, we’re not going to take their huffing and puffing very seriously. These are essentially the same rulers that ordered their soldiers to open fire on peacefully protesting students in 1989 at Tianamen Square. I doubt a bit of cyber-espionage would disturb their consciences much.

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