Google disclosed ‘cyber attack’ by China was ‘highly sophisticated’ hack on security data

Google: Expert warns of potential Gmail 'sabotage'

Google suffered a global outage this week, with failures reported across the company’s services, including Gmail, Google Calendar and YouTube. The US tech company said it was caused by an issue with its authentication tools which manage how users log in to its services. But some, including security expert Will Geddes, feared Gmail – which has more than 1.5 billion global users – may have been sabotaged by hackers.

Speaking after the worldwide crash, Mr Geddes said: “The sky is the limit in terms of what data they could have stolen.”

He added that it could be to “download servers from Gmail accounts, credentials to log in and the contents of those emails,” or even more worryingly, to “sabotage federal organisations”.

While there is no suggestion Google suffered a security breach this time, it has happened before.

Operation Aurora was the name given to a series of cyber attacks believed to have originated in Beijing, China and said to have links to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

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They began in mid-2009 and were first publicly disclosed by Google in a 2010 blog post. 

A statement read: “Like many other well-known organisations, we face cyber attacks of varying degrees on a regular basis. 

“In mid-December, we detected a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China that resulted in the theft of intellectual property from Google.  

“However, it soon became clear that what at first appeared to be solely a security incident – albeit a significant one – was something quite different.” 

Initially, Google said the “primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists,” but that soon changed.

The breach appeared to aim at identifying Chinese intelligence operatives in the US who may have been under surveillance by American law enforcement agencies. 

It is said the Aurora hackers gained access to certain Google accounts that had US court-ordered wiretaps. 

Operation Aurora reportedly also targeted at least 34 other companies, including Adobe, Juniper, Rackspace, Symantec, Northrop Grumman, Morgan Stanley, and Yahoo!

The incident was given its name by Dmitri Alperovitch, Vice President of Threat Research at cyber security company McAfee after experts discovered that “Aurora” was part of the file path on the attacker’s machine associated with the hack. 

Former Chief Technology Officer of McAfee, George Kurtz, said: “We believe the name was the internal name the attacker(s) gave to this operation.”

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According to a diplomatic cable from the US Embassy in Beijing, a source reported that the Chinese government directed the intrusion into Google’s computer systems. 

The cable suggested that the attack was part of a coordinated campaign executed by “government operatives, public security experts and Internet outlaws recruited by the Chinese government”.

According to reports, the attacks were “orchestrated by a senior member of the Politburo who typed his own name into the global version of the search engine and found articles criticising him personally”. 

The initial response from the Chinese Foreign Ministry focused not on Operation Aurora, but on Google’s threat to not adhere to Chinese censorship laws.

The Chinese government never provided a formal response, although an anonymous official stated that China was seeking more information on “Google’s intentions”.

Google stated in its blog that it planned to operate a completely uncensored version of its search engine in China as a result.

The statement continued: “We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all.”

Official Chinese sources claimed this was part of a strategy developed by the US government.

Later that year Google was pulled from mainland China.

Once a popular search engine, most services offered by Google China are now blocked by the country’s “Great Firewall”.

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