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US Investigating 'Serious' Hacker Attack on Google Accounts

A woman walks past the logo of Google in front of its headquarters in Beijing January 12, 2011
A woman walks past the logo of Google in front of its headquarters in Beijing January 12, 2011
William Ide

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says federal authorities are investigating Internet giant Google's accusation that computer hackers, most likely in China, broke into the e-mail accounts of hundreds of users including Chinese political activists, journalists and those of government officials both in the United States and from several Asian countries.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says the United States is taking the allegations very seriously and that the Federal Bureau of Investigation is working together with Google to investigate the attacks.

"We are obviously very concerned about Google's announcement regarding a campaign that the company believes originated in China to collect the passwords of Google e-mail account holders," said Secretary Clinton.

Clinton made her remarks Thursday during an appearance with the foreign minister of the Czech Republic in Washington. Although Google says the campaign appears to have targeted senior U.S. government officials, the White House says it does not have any immediate reason to believe that government accounts were attacked. Google did not say which U.S. officials were affected, or how long the users' accounts were exposed.

Cyber security is becoming a diplomatic priority for the United States and the State Department recently appointed a cyber security coordinator to focus on tackling information theft and reducing the risk of conflicts.

Clinton says the United States believes cyber issues are going to be a continuing problem.

"We know this is going to be a continuing problem and therefore we want to be as prepared as possible to deal with these matters when they do come to our attention," said Clinton

China has lashed out at Google, saying it is "unacceptable" for the company to blame China for the attack. In its statement, however, Google did not say the Chinese government was behind the attacks or what the possible motives of those behind the campaign might have been.

The company did say the goal of the attack seemed to have been to monitor the contents of the users’ e-mails, with the perpetrators apparently using stolen passwords to change peoples’ forwarding e-mail settings. Google says hackers used malware and phishing scams to dupe users into sharing their passwords and hacked into other websites to obtain Gmail users account information.

Dean Cheng, an Asia security analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, says that just because the attack originated in China does not mean that it was carried with the knowledge and approval of the Chinese government.

"China becomes more of a suspect because of who is being hacked and the kinds of things that are being hacked," said Cheng.

Google is not the only company to recently have been the target of a high-profile attack. U.S. defense company Lockheed Martin Corporation also recently reported an attempt to take information from its company computers.

Last month, the company said it experienced what it called a  "significant and tenacious attack" on its networks. After taking aggressive actions to protect its systems no data was compromised. It is unclear who or what country might have been behind the attack.

China says that it too is frequently the victim of hacking attacks and says the claims of those who say it is supporting such attacks are completely unfounded.

Heritage's Dean Cheng says it is true that many countries, including China, are facing attacks.

"The difference is I think, that China - whether it's this Blue Army of military cyber hackers that they've established and now publicly acknowledged or cyber intrusions that have been traced to Shanghai Jiaotong University - seems to have more of a state role," he said.

Last year, Google relocated its search engine to Hong Kong, following a dispute with the Chinese government over censorship and following a serious hacking attack. It says this year's attack originated in the same region as last year's attack.

The company says it traced the hackers to Jinan, the capital of China's eastern Shandong province, where the People's Liberation Army has a so-called technical reconnaissance bureau and a technical college.

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