Google's Big Trouble in China Over Gmail Hacks

Google was hammered by China's Communist newspaper for accusing the Chinese government of hacking into Gmail accounts. The publication claimed Google was trying to stir political unrest between China and the U.S.

A Chinese government newspaper took issue with Google's accusation that it had traced cyber-attacks on Gmail accounts to that country, claiming that the search-engine giant was simply trying to stir political unrest.

Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) June 1 disrupted a phishing scam that duped senior U.S. government officials, Chinese political activists and others into giving up their Gmail passwords so that an attacker could read and forward their email messages.

The attack affected hundreds of users and appeared to hail from Jinan, China, which is home to one of the People's Liberation Army's technical reconnaissance bureaus, or China's equivalent of the National Security Agency in the United States.

Google's implication was that the Chinese government was behind the attacks. Hong Lei, spokesman for China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, denied his government had anything to do with the attacks, calling them "fabrication out of thin air" and "unacceptable."

The People's Daily, which writes on behalf of China's Communist Party, said June 6 that Google made its claims out of "a vicious intent of sparking new disputes concerning Internet security between China and the U.S," according to The Wall Street Journal.

People's Daily editor Zhang Yixuan also lobbed a veiled threat at the search-engine company when he wrote in the front-page editorial: "Google shouldn't engulf itself in the international political war as a tool for political gaming," If there is "any change in the international atmosphere, I am afraid Google will become a target to be sacrificed by politics, and also will be discarded by the market."

The implication is that Google would lose more face, political capital and market share if it pursued its allegations against the country. There is precedent for this.

The company lost search market share to market leader Baidu after tracing cyber-attacks on Gmail accounts of Chinese dissidents and human-rights activists to China. Google, which threatened to exit China entirely, ceased censoring search results there and sent users to the domain in Hong Kong.

Google, which passed its evidence of the Gmail hacks along to the FBI, declined to comment directly on the editorial. However, a spokesperson told eWEEK: "We think users should be aware of the disturbing campaign we've uncovered to collect user passwords and monitor user email. Our focus now is on protecting our users and making sure everyone knows how to stay safe online."

Meanwhile, House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) wrote to Google CEO Larry Page on Monday requesting more information on the Gmail phishing attacks. Issa asked Google not only to name all federal employees targeted in the attack, but also to disclose all communications related to Google's response.

Google told eWEEK it is reviewing Issa's letter, adding: "We believe that discussing security issues facing our industry helps users better protect themselves from phishing scams and other common threats."