Google on Thursday shot a new salvo at China with revelations suspecting Chinese hackers of hijacking hundreds of Gmail accounts including those of US and South Korean officials, mainland activists and journalists.
This is the second public spat between the Internet search engine and Beijing, adding greater uncertainty to Google's future in the world's largest online market. Google last year partially shifted its operations from China to Hong Kong to avoid online censorship.
The Google statement posted on its blog, which is blocked in Beijing, did not blame the Chinese government for the latest attack, but said it originated in east China. While the White House and FBI promptly announced inquiries into the cyber espionage claims, the Chinese foreign ministry shot back on Thursday that the accusations were a 'fabrication' based on 'ulterior motives'. "Blaming these misdeeds on China is unacceptable," said spokesman Hong Lei. "China is also a victim of hacking."
The US government recently said it will classify cyber attacks as 'acts of war' and this tussle with Google will further strain ties with China.
"We recently uncovered a campaign to collect user passwords, likely through phishing," said the Google statement. "This campaign, which appears to originate from Jinan, China, affected what seem 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 (predominantly South Korea), military personnel and journalists. The goal seems to have been to monitor contents of these users' emails."
Google said that the hacking was not because of problems in Gmail security. Gmail users across China have been complaining of disrupted service for several weeks. The hackers used stolen passwords to change the users' forwarding settings so that all emails would automatically be sent to other recipients. Three Chinese activists confirmed to Reuters their Gmail accounts were compromised.
"My Gmail is suddenly inaccessible because someone changed my password," Cui Weiping, a political campaigner based at the Beijing Film Academy, told Reuters.
NYT, in a 2010 report refuted by Beijing, claimed that a vocational school in Jinan, the capital of eastern Shandong province, was turning into a hacker base. China's official news agency Xinhua released a statement denouncing Google for making 'groundless' claims without 'solid proof'. The Chinese military recently said it has set up an online team to battle cyber-attacks.
Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the nationalist Global Times, blogged that China should be more transparent on domestic cyber attacks to fight finger pointing' from foreign countries. "How many officials does China have whose computers are attacked daily?" he posted. "We are silent and circumspect, looking like an underground Party, not daring to speak," he said, according to a translation by the China Media Project in Hong Kong.
(With agency reports).