Google to exit China over alleged cyber attacks on its users

13 Jan 2010

Continuing controversy over censorship and freedom of speech and a recent spate of alleged cyber attacks have resulted in the world’s largest internet entity, Google, considering plans to exit China.

“Like many other well-known organisations, we face cyber attacks of varying degrees on a regular basis,” explained David Drummond, senior vice-president, corporate development and chief legal officer at Google.

“In mid-December, we detected a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China that resulted in the theft of intellectual property from Google. However, it soon became clear that what at first appeared to be solely a security incident – albeit a significant one – was something quite different.

“First, this attack was not just on Google. As part of our investigation 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,” said Drummond.

Head’s departure

In April last year, the head of Google in China, Lee Kai-Fu decided to leave the company to pursue a new start-up interest. In June, China ordered Google to curtail web searches that linked to non-Chinese websites. In recent days, it emerged that the largest Chinese search engine was hacked.

Drummond said Google has evidence to suggest that a primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human-rights activists.

“Based on our investigation to date, we believe their attack did not achieve that objective. Only two Gmail accounts appear to have been accessed, and that activity was limited to account information (such as the date the account was created) and subject line, rather than the content of emails themselves.”

Restricting freedom online

Over the past year, China has intensified its efforts to curb internet freedom and the latest threat by Google to exit the country highlights how antagonistic things have become.

In the past year, China’s system fro restricting foreign content – dubbed the Great Fire Wall – has been raised to block sites like Facebook and Twitter, as well as YouTube. This is in addition to pressure being put on ISPs to reveal information as well as the arrest of journalists and free-speech campaigners.

Last June, the Chinese Government also attempted to install ‘Green Dam’ censorship software on every computer in the country that would deny access to sites with pornographic content or content deemed politically sensitive.

According to Drummond: “As part of this investigation but independent of the attack on Google, we have discovered that the accounts of dozens of US, China- and Europe-based Gmail users who are advocates of human rights in China appear to have been routinely accessed by third parties. These accounts have not been accessed through any security breach at Google, but most likely via phishing scams or malware placed on the users’ computers. We have already used information gained from this attack to make infrastructure and architectural improvements that enhance security for Google and for our users.”

Security steps

Drummond has advised internet users to deploy reputable anti-virus or anti-spyware programs on their computers, install patches for their operating systems, update their web browsers and always be cautious when clicking on links in instant messages and emails.

“We have taken the unusual step of sharing information about these attacks with a broad audience, not just because of the security and human rights implications of what we have unearthed, but also because this information goes to the heart of a much bigger global debate about freedom of speech.

“In the last two decades, China’s economic reform programs and its citizens’ entrepreneurial flair have lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese people out of poverty. Indeed, this great nation is at the heart of much economic progress and development in the world today.

“We launched in January 2006 in the belief that the benefits of increased access to information for people in China and a more open internet outweighed our discomfort in agreeing to censor some results. At the time we made clear that we will carefully monitor conditions in China, including new laws and other restrictions on our services. If we determine that we are unable to achieve the objectives outlined we will not hesitate to reconsider our approach to China.

“These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered – combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web – have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China.

“We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognise that this may well mean having to shut down, and potentially our offices in China.

“The decision to review our business operations in China has been incredibly hard, and we know that it will have potentially far-reaching consequences. We want to make clear that this move was driven by our executives in the United States, without the knowledge or involvement of our employees in China who have worked incredibly hard to make the success it is today. We are committed to working responsibly to resolve the very difficult issues raised,” Drummond said.

By John Kennedy

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years