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War of Words Between US and China Over Google Email Hacking

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ratcheted up pressure on the Chinese Thursday over allegations of spying on the personal email accounts of top-level US officials.

Nick Rowe | Photodisc | Getty Images

“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 email passwords,” Clinton said in remarks to reporters at the State Department.

“Google informed the State Department of this yesterday in advance of its public announcement,” she said. “These allegations are very serious, we take them seriously and we’re looking into them.”

Clinton’s comments put a spotlight on China and its alleged long-running efforts to penetrate US business and political cyber security in pursuit of secrets relating to everything from technological advances to behind-the-scenes political decision making.

Personal Gmail accounts of senior officials are presumably easier to hack into than their official counterparts, but the contents could reveal significant nuggets of information or allow a foreign intelligence service to piece together insights into the thinking, contacts and even whereabouts of American leaders.

The episode adds tension to an already strained US-Chinese relationship that has suffered in recent years from economic competition, a budding military rivalry and earlier allegations of spying by both sides.

The Chinese government disavowed any involvement in the latest incident and sought to cast suspicion back on Google’s motive for disclosing the alleged attack.

Code Wars: America's Cyber Threat -- See Show Details
Code Wars: America's Cyber Threat -- See Show Details

“Allegations that the Chinese government supports hacking activities are completely unfounded and made with ulterior motives,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei.

The initial allegation came on Wednesday from Google, which said that it had detected a cyber attack on its Gmail service that appeared to target US government officials, military personnel and journalists, as well as personal email accounts of officials in Asia.

“This campaign, which appears to originate from Jinan, China, affected what seem to be the personal Gmail accounts of hundreds of users,” Google said in a blog posting by Eric Grosse, the Engineering Director of Google’s Security Team.

“The goal of this effort seems to have been to monitor the contents of these users’ emails, with the perpetrators apparently using stolen passwords to change peoples’ forwarding and delegation settings,” Grosse wrote. Google said it had “detected and disrupted” the campaign.

Google’s reference to the city of Jinan is telling. It is the city south of Beijing that the US government has said serves as the headquarters of a technical reconnaissance bureau of the People’s Liberation Army. Also, a vocational school there was traced as the source of an attack on Google’s systems over a year ago.

The White House said it was monitoring the Google situation. “We have no reason to believe that any official US Government email accounts were accessed,” said an administration official. “We’re looking into these reports and are seeking to gather the facts.”

Similarly, a Department of Defense spokesperson said that the Pentagon is also aware of the allegations. “As the breach involved Gmail, since those are not official Department of Defense e-mail accounts, we are unaware if the targeted individuals are Defense employees,” said the spokesperson.

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