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Google Points to China Again in Gmail Hack

According to Google, Jinan, China-based hackers accessed hundreds of users, including U.S. government officials, military personnel, journalists, Chinese political activists and officials of several Asian countries, most of them in South Korea.

In a post on the Google blog, the company said the hackers likely used phishing tactics to get users to give up their passwords with the intent of monitoring their e-mail messages. The attackers also apparently changed users' forwarding and deletion settings, Google said. Gmail lets users forward e-mail messages automatically and give other users access to the account.

The Washington Post, quoting a U.S. government official with knowledge of the attack, said the account of one Cabinet official was among those hacked.

The hackers gained access to a large amount of content, the Post reported, although the attack was limited to personal accounts; no official government accounts were breached. The FBI was notified of the attack last week. The Chinese government denied any involvement, calling Google's claims a "fabrication," the Washington Post reported.

Google said it disrupted the attack, notified the affected users and secured their accounts.

The targeted attack continues a trend toward under-the-radar attacks that successfully use phishing and other tactics to gain access to user accounts and network systems. The intent isn't to disrupt systems, but to quietly infiltrate them and gather information.

Similar attacks, often called Advanced Persistent Threats, have been used in recent high-profile breaches, such as those at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and RSA Security.

In March attackers gained access to information about RSA Security's SecurID authentication tokens, which subsequently were used in recent breaches of defense contractors Lockheed Martin and L3 Communications.

Google said the Gmail hack didn't disrupt its internal systems and contended that the problem wasn't with Gmail's security. Its blog post urged users to improve their approach to security, offering seven steps they could take, including using two-step verification, strong passwords used only with Gmail, and using Gmail features to monitor for their accounts for suspicious forwarding, delegated accounts and other activity.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is the managing editor of Government Computer News.

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