Google Probes Possible Inside Job after China Cyber-Attack

Foreign reporters based in China were targeted by hackers who infiltrated their Google (GOOG) email accounts, a Chinese-based journalism group said Monday. The announcement comes less than a week after Google disclosed that it had been the victim of a massive cyber-attack that targeted over 30 American companies, as well as the Gmail accounts of Chinese dissidents and human rights workers.Meanwhile, Reuters reported that Google is exploring the alarming possibility that "one or more" of its own employees helped carry out the attack, which has prompted an escalating diplomatic row between the United States and China. The U.S. State Department is expected to file a formal complaint with China over the matter this week.

The targeted foreign journalists -- one of whom is a television reporter for the Associated Press in Beijing -- said they noticed the infiltration after checking their Gmail accounts in the wake of Google's disclosure of the attacks. Their accounts had been set up to forward their mail to an address they didn't recognize, according to an account in The New York Times.

Journalists, Human Rights Advocates Targeted

The reporters were part of a much larger group of people in China who have discovered their Gmail accounts had been compromised, the paper said. "We remind all members that journalists in China have been particular targets of hacker attacks in the last two years," the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China said in revealing the latest attacks on reporters Gmail accounts.

In addition to the journalists, several well-known human rights advocates in China said they, too, had been targeted by hackers who had set their Gmail accounts to forward messages to unrecognized email addresses. The victims include Ai Weiwei, whom The Times describes as a "rebellious artist," and Teng Biao, a lawyer.

The revelation that the Gmail accounts of human rights workers were targeted is a humiliating blow for Google, whose co-founder Sergey Brin, a Russian-born refugee from the Soviet Union, has pushed the company to adhere to its "Don't be evil" motto. For several years, Google has been the subject of intense criticism over its decision to censor its Chinese language search engine, per state law. Google has argued that "Some Google is better than no Google," and said it hoped to help prod the Chinese government toward greater openness from within.

Prepared To Quit China Altogether

But in the wake of the attacks on Google, which were apparently separate from the attacks on the reporters, the search giant said it would no longer censor its Chinese search engine and was prepared to quit the country altogether. In response, China defiantly declared its Internet "open" and said Internet companies operating in China must follow the law.

Over the weekend, U.S. tech giant Yahoo (YHOO) was drawn into the growing controversy over its support for Google's tough stance against China. It drew the drew the ire of Alibaba (ALBCF), the Chinese internet company in which it owns a 40% stake. Alibaba called Yahoo statement of support for Google "reckless."

Meanwhile, Google is exploring the possibility that "one or more" of its own employees played a role in the cyber-attack, Reuters reported on Monday, citing "sources familiar with the situation." Specifically, the company is investigating whether any of its roughly 800 China-based employees were involved.

Google Employees Put On Leave?

The newswire said that local Chinese media, citing anonymous sources, have reported that some Google China employees were put on leave or transferred in the wake of Google's announcement last Tuesday, while others were denied security privileges.

Given that the attack has been traced back to sources connected to Chinese state intelligence, any revelation that Google's own employees were involved would amount to a major act of international corporate espionage.

In fact, as more details emerge about the situation, it's looking increasingly clear that what's really going on here is an escalating cyber-war between China, and its agents, and the United States and U.S. technology companies. Among the 30-plus American companies targeted were Northrop Grumman (NOC), the U.S. defense giant, and Dow Chemical (DOW), the massive industrial conglomerate.

Last Friday, U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman said that China-based attacks on U.S. government computers have been "ongoing for a long time."
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