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China denies Gmail hacking accusations

June 2, 2011


Google China's former headquarters in Beijing

Gmail account passwords were stolen by hackers suspected to be based in Jinan, capital of Shandong province. Photograph: Jason Lee/Reuters

China has rejected Google’s accusations that it is behind a wave of high-level hacking attacks and said its critics had “ulterior motives” in trying to blame the government in Beijing.

The rebuttal follows revelations that Chinese hackers have stolen the Gmail login details of hundreds of senior US and South Korean government officials as well as Chinese political activists.

Google has warned the victims of the “phishing” scam and made a public statement about the threat. The US company said it could not say for sure who was responsible, but it traced many of the attacks to Jinan, the capital of Shandong province and a suspected centre of cyber espionage.

A spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry said it was unacceptable to blame Beijing.

“Hacking attacks are an international issue. China is also a victim,” Hong Lei told a regular press conference. “The so-called statement that the Chinese government supports hacking attacks is a total fabrication out of nothing. It has ulterior motives.”

This is not the first clash between the world’s biggest search engine and the world’s biggest censor. In January 2010 Google said it would no longer censor its China-based search engine in accordance with government demands, in response to the China-based intrusions into the accounts of human rights activists. The Chinese authorities have since withdrawn the licence for Google’s mainland-based search operations.

Late last year diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks revealed that Google had raised its concerns with the US embassy and a “well-placed” contact had said the targeting of Google was “100% political”.

The computer security firm McAfee has alleged that China-based attackers made “co-ordinated, covert and targeted” intrusions into the systems of five major oil and gas firms to steal proprietary information.

Last month the human rights website change.org said it had been repeatedly targeted by hacking attacks from China after launching an online campaign for the release of the artist Ai Weiwei.

The perpetrators and motives remain unclear, though Google’s naming of Jinan as the origin is consistent with the assumptions behind previous investigations by security experts.

Last year the New York Times named Lanxiang vocational school in Jinan as one of two educational institutions linked to the so-called Aurora attacks against Google.

The school, which is about 250 miles south-east of Beijing, offers many technical subjects, including computing. It has repeatedly denied any involvement in the hacking attacks.

Contacted on Thursday, the school rejected the latest accusations. “We have nothing to do with this event,” said a woman at the school office who declined to give her name. ” How can we have such high technology or such elite students? It’s impossible.”

Chinese computer experts cautioned against drawing quick conclusions.

“It is very hard to say this is a problem caused by any one country. China is also sometimes a victim,” said Song Jiaxing, a professor in the computer department of Tsinghua University. “What this certainly shows is that security measures are inadequate. It’s like operating a goldmine without sufficient locks.”

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