Google says Gmail hack came from China

Attack targets U.S. officials, military personnel, others; China denies involvement

Hackers apparently based in Jinan, China, accessed the Gmail accounts of hundreds of users, including U.S. government officials, military personnel, journalists, Chinese political activists and officials of several Asian countries, most of them in South Korea, Google said.

In a post on the Google blog, the company said the hackers likely used phishing tactics to get users to give up their passwords with the intent of monitoring their e-mail messages. The attackers also apparently changed users’ forwarding and deletion settings, Google said. Gmail lets users forward e-mail messages automatically and give other users access to the account.

The Washington Post, quoting a U.S. government official with knowledge of the attack, said the account of one Cabinet official was among those hacked.


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The hackers gained access to a large amount of content, the Post reported, although the attack was limited to personal accounts; no official government accounts were breached. The FBI was notified of the attack last week. The Chinese government denied any involvement, calling Google’s claims a “fabrication,” the Post reported.

Google said it disrupted the attack, notified the affected users and secured their accounts.

The targeted attack continues a trend toward under-the-radar attacks that successfully use phishing and other tactics to gain access to user accounts and network systems. The intent isn’t to disrupt systems, but to quietly infiltrate them and gather information.

Similar attacks, often called Advanced Persistent Threats, have been used in recent high-profile breaches, such as those at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and RSA Security.

In March attackers gained access to information about RSA Security’s SecurID authentication tokens, which subsequently were used in recent breaches of defense contractors Lockheed Martin and L3 Communications.

Google said the Gmail hack didn’t disrupt its internal systems and contended that the problem wasn’t with Gmail’s security. Its blog post urged users to improve their approach to security, offering seven steps they could take, including using two-step verification, strong passwords used only with Gmail, and using Gmail features to monitor for their accounts for suspicious forwarding, delegated accounts and other activity.

 

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is editor of Defense Systems. Follow him on Twitter: @KevinMcCaney.

Reader Comments

Fri, Jun 3, 2011 paulaonea

China denied the allegations on Thursday, calling the accusation “a fabrication out of thin air,”" I am sure they did a thorough investigation to come to that conclusion, and they are far more efficient than Sony to figure this kind of stuff out. http://bit.ly/jSNY8B

Thu, Jun 2, 2011

When reading the official blog post, it is evident that it was NOT a hack, so the title of this article is misleading. The blog mentions this most likely the result of spear phishing whereby "hijacking accounts by using malware and phishing scams that trick users into sharing their passwords, or by using passwords obtained by hacking other websites. According to the blog posting, the internal systems have not been affected. These account hijackings were not the result of a security problem with Gmail itself and was limited to only to targeted personal accounts.

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