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Google is latest target of aggressive hacking from China

An attempt to break into Chinese activists’ Google Gmail accounts echoes last year’s massive Ghostnet attack, which spied on 1,000 computers worldwide. Both attacks originated in China and, some experts suspect, were linked to the government.

Flowers presented by Chinese Google users are seen on a sign outside the Google China headquarters in Beijing on Wednesday.

Vincent Thian/AP

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Google was careful not to accuse the Chinese government directly of the cyberattacks that the company said it had detected against human rights activists’ Gmail accounts. But the implications were clear.

If Google’s engineers thought that some random hackers had been snooping, Google’s top legal officer would hardly have said that the incident “goes to the heart of a much bigger debate about freedom of speech.”

Ghostnet ops

Rafal Rohozinki has his suspicions, too. He was a principal investigator on the Canadian team of cyber-detectives that last year laid bare the existence of “Ghostnet” – a spying operation controlled from computers in China that infiltrated other computers in 103 countries – many in embassies, ministries, and the Dalai Lama’s offices.

“Google’s disclosure is another admission that there is systematic targeting of individuals by parties unknown but strongly suspected to be linked to the Chinese government,” he says.

The men who unraveled “Ghostnet” did not say conclusively that Beijing was behind the botnet that infected at least 1,295 computers around the world, allowing its controllers to read and copy files and even to turn on the audio and video functions of an infected computer so that they could see and hear what was going on around it.

A Chinese government spokesman dismissed the report when it came out last March, saying its authors were “bent on fabricating lies of so-called Chinese computer spies.”

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