Google and China are once again wrangling in the international media spotlight. This time, Google is accusing the communist nation of hosting hackers who accessed hundreds of Gmail accounts. China is aggressively denying the charges.
On Wednesday, Google reported that its cloud-based security and abuse detection systems discovered a campaign to collect user passwords, likely through phishing attacks. Google said the campaign appeared to originate from Jinan, China.
Perhaps more disturbing are the targets of the attacks: The personal Gmail accounts of hundreds of users, including senior U.S. government officials; Chinese political activists; officials in several Asian countries, predominantly South Korea; military personnel; and journalists.
'A Fabrication Out of Thin Air'
"The goal of this effort seems to have been to monitor the contents of these users' e-mails, with the perpetrators apparently using stolen passwords to change peoples' forwarding and delegation settings," Eric Grosse, engineering director of the Google Security Team, wrote in a blog post.
"Google detected and has disrupted this campaign to take users' passwords and monitor their emails," he wrote. "We have notified victims and secured their accounts. In addition, we have notified relevant government authorities."
Google stressed that its internal systems were not affected, and the account hijackings were not the result of a security problem with Gmail. Grosse believes that being open about these security issues helps users better protect their information online, and he offered some ways to improve the security of Google products.
According to The Washington Post, a spokesperson for China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the accusations are "unacceptable" and called them "a fabrication out of thin air."
'An Era of Perpetual Hacking'
"More and more 'organized crime' is moving into online scams, identity theft, and hacking. It's unclear who's behind this recent incident, whether it's the Chinese government or its surrogates, or private groups out for purely financial gain," said Greg Sterling, principal analyst at Sterling Market Intelligence.
"However, we're probably are entering an era of perpetual hacking and online espionage, where these types of efforts and incidents will be routine from criminals and hostile governments abroad," he added. "It really ups the security stakes for everyone, from companies to federal and state governments as well as individuals."
Ongoing China Allegations
In March, Google claimed China was blocking or interfering with Gmail accounts in China. Google accused the Chinese government of making it difficult for users there to access the web-based e-mail service. Google said it wasn't just a glitch like the one that took down thousands of Gmail accounts stateside earlier this month.
Google has erroneously made accusations against China before. Last July, Google accused China of blocking its search engine, Google Mobile, and Google Ad products. Google also said its news and image services were being "partially blocked."
However, Google apparently rushed to judgment. Google later said the blockage levels were misreported by the company's internal tracking system. It's likely that Google was more diligent this time around to make sure the Gmail issues weren't caused by an internal problem, but some analysts still aren't comfortable with Google's tactics.