China cyber attacks: Google only one of many US targets

Google says cyber attacks originating in China targeted 'our corporate infrastructure.' Cyber attacks from China have hit a number of US industries, leading some experts to suggest that the Chinese government could be involved.

Vincent Thian/AP
Visitors take pictures outside the Google China headquarters in Beijing, Wednesday.

Google’s announcement that it may withdraw from China was based not solely on Chinese cyberattacks on dissidents’ Gmail accounts and free-speech concerns, but also on “a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China,” it said.

The attack, the company said in a statement, “resulted in the theft of intellectual property from Google.” It was also part of a much larger pattern of attacks that sought to steal key proprietary data from many other companies and industries, it said.

News reports suggest Google’s “source code” may have been a target.

“This attack was not just on Google, the company said in its Jan. 12 statement. “We have discovered that at least 20 other large companies from a wide range of businesses – including the Internet, finance, technology, media, and chemical sectors – have been similarly targeted.”

Those similar attacks were outlined in two recent reports cited by Google.

• A US government report issued in October suggests a global pattern in which Chinese “state-sponsored” hackers steal proprietary data that might help that nation’s indigenous industries.

• A report by Canadian researchers documents a global cyberespionage network harvesting data apparently set up to aid Chinese authorities in their fight against dissidents.

Are the attacks 'state sponsored'?

Such findings raise larger questions. If Google with all its cyber-resources and expertise is worried about keeping cyberspies out of its crown jewels – its source code – can other Fortune 500 companies reasonably expect to protect theirs?

Are the attacks on Google and others really “state sponsored” – or done at least with the complicity of Chinese authorities if not explicitly directed by them?

China and Russia have become a suspect in several recent major cyberattacks, with both known to have large communities of hackers and computer security experts, cyberexperts say.

"China, more so than Russia, has a large number of hacker clubs watched closely by the government," says O. Sami Saydjari, a former Department of Defense employee who runs Cyber Defense Agency, a Wisconsin Rapids-based security company.

"These talent pools are all potential recruits for China's professional cyberwarfare units,” he says. “We believe these units have loose affiliation with military and loose command and control down through these hacker clubs. We strongly suspect they encourage their hacker groups to go out and attack foreign entities and get practice."

Sophistication is key

Google cited the sophistication of highly orchestrated attacks on its computer – a hallmark of state-sponsored efforts cited in a recent study conducted for the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

"A review of the scale, focus, and complexity of the overall campaign directed against the United States and, increasingly, a host of other countries around the world strongly suggest that these operations are state-sponsored or supported," the review commission report concluded.

Chinese embassy officials adamantly deny that the government endorses or tolerates cyberespionage of corporations. Officials at the Chinese embassy in Washington regularly deny having anything to do with the attacks on Google.

"The Internet of China is open. The Chinese Government encourages the development and usage of the Internet," said a statement following Google's allegations. "The law of China prohibits any kind of cyberattacks. We welcome internet companies to operate in China according to Chinese law."


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