Google has today revealed that in mid-December, they, along with a number of other large companies in the Internet, finance, technology, media and chemical sectors, were targeted in a sophisticated cyber-attack. This attack on their infrastructure originated in China, and resulted in the theft of intellectual property.
Google's analysis of this attack suggests that the aim was to access Gmail accounts of a number of Chinese human rights activists, but they believe the attempt failed. Only two accounts were successfully accessed, and the only information viewed included the creation date of the accounts, and subject lines, not the contents, of messages.
As part of the investigation, Google has uncovered that dozens of US, European and Chinese human rights advocates have also had their accounts accessed routinely by third parties. These accounts appear to have been accessed through phishing scams, rather than a security breach at Google themselves. As always, up to date anti-virus and anti-malware software is the best solution to protect against this.
Google has already used information from this attack to make security enhancements to their infrastructure to better protect users in the future, and have taken the unusual step of sharing this information both due to the security and human rights aspects, but also as part of a wider debate on China and free speech.
Due to this attack, and the background behind it, Google is now taking a second look at their operations in China, particularly Google.cn, where they currently offer censored search results as part of an agreement with China's government. Google is now taking a big step by informing the government of China that it is no longer willing to provide censored results, and will be entering into discussions regarding how it can do this without breaking Chinese law. Should Google find themselves unable to reach an agreement, they may shut down Google.cn, and close their offices in China.
This move has been driven by key executives at Google in the United States, who have been monitoring the human rights and freedom of speech situation in China carefully since they launched Google.cn in 2006.
At the time of writing Google shares are down 1.9 percent at $579 while Chinese rival Baidu rose 6.8 percent to $413 on the news.