China has rejected as "unacceptable" allegations of involvement in a cyberspying campaign targeting the Google e-mail accounts of senior U.S. officials, military personnel, journalists, and Chinese activists.
The Chinese reaction came a day after Google said hackers had tried to steal the passwords of hundreds of Gmail account holders.
Google has not blamed the Chinese government directly but said the cyberspying campaign appeared to have originated in Jinan, in the eastern Chinese province of Shandong.
The breach is likely to further complicate uneasy relations between the U.S. company and Chinese authorities, which have been strained over censorship and a previous cyberscheme.
Peter Barron, the director of Google's external relations in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, described the campaign to RFE/RL.
"This campaign, which appears to originate from Jinan, China, affected what seems to be the personal Gmail accounts of hundreds of users including, among others, senior U.S. government officials, Chinese political activists, officials in several Asian countries, military personnel, and journalists," Barron said. "The goal of this effort seems to have been to monitor the contents of these users’ e-mails."
'Phishing' For Logins
Google security team engineering director Eric Grosse said in a blog post on June 1 that the scam likely used a common practice known as "phishing."
This is where e-mail users are tricked into divulging their e-mail login and password to a web page that resembles Google's Gmail web service or which appears related to the target's work. The hackers then tell Gmail's service to forward incoming e-mail to another account set up by the hacker.
Grosse insisted that the California-based firm's internal systems had not been affected and that the hijackings were not the result of a security problem with Gmail itself.
The fact that the victims were people with access to sensitive information raises suspicions that this was cyberespionage rather than cybercrime.
But Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei today said China has stood against Internet crime, including hacking, and resolutely cracks down on it.
"Hacking is an international problem. China is also a victim of hacking," Hong said. "Claims that the Chinese government supports hacking activities are totally groundless and are driven by an ulterior motive."
The White House said it was investigating the reports but did not believe official U.S. government e-mail accounts had been breached, while the FBI said it was working with Google following the attacks.
Last year, Google partially pulled out of China, the world's largest Internet market by users, following a conflict with Beijing over censorship and a "highly sophisticated” cyberattack on its infrastructure targeting human rights activists.
At that time, Beijing denied as "groundless" any state involvement.
Beijing renewed Google's license to operate in China after the U.S. Internet giant in June 2010 agreed to stop automatically redirecting users of its China search site to its uncensored site in Hong Kong.
Beijing tightly controls online content, removing information it deems harmful such as pornography and violent content, but also politically sensitive material.
Cyberattacks have become common in recent years, with U.S. defense contractor Lockheed Martin saying it repelled a "significant and tenacious attack" on its information systems network last week.
The Pentagon announced that it was drawing up a cyberdefense strategy, which would be ready this month.
with agency reports