Google and China

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A fair bit has been written about Google's "new approach to China"
Like many other well-known organizations, we face cyber attacks of varying degrees on a regular basis. 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.

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Third, as part of this investigation but independent of the attack on Google, we have discovered that the accounts of dozens of U.S.-, 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.

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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 Google.cn, 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 recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China.

I don't really see the connection between this incident and Google's decision to stop offering filtered access to search queries in China, at least in terms of protecting Google from future attacks. Let's say for the sake of argument that not only were the attacks originated in China but also that (and as far as I know, this is unproven), they were directly sponsored by the Chinese government. How does refusing to offer filtered searches help? It's not like the hackers (allegedly) used some vulnerability in the filtering software as their attack vector. Similarly, even if Google were to pull out of China, or even cut off all access to Chinese IP addresses, Chinese hackers aren't restricted to using IP addresses in Chinese address ranges; they can perfectly well use machines which are located in the US, either by using legitimately purchased accounts as stepping stones, or by using compromised American hosts, of which there are plenty.

I don't have any inside information, but it seems to me like a more plausible story (see this Slate article for an alternate view) is that Google thinks the Chinese government is behind these incidents and this is a way of retaliating against China, under the assumption that China would prefer to have some Google than none. I have no idea whether or not this is something China cares about, however. [Mrs. Guesswork observes that another theory is that Google was previously cooperating with China's surveillance efforts and feels like China overstepped their agreement.]

On a different note, it has been fairly widely reported that an IE 0-day was used in the attack, but Bruce Schneier claims that the hackers exploited a Google-created backdoor intended for lawful intercept (though he doesn't provide any sources):

(CNN) -- Google made headlines when it went public with the fact that Chinese hackers had penetrated some of its services, such as Gmail, in a politically motivated attempt at intelligence gathering. The news here isn't that Chinese hackers engage in these activities or that their attempts are technically sophisticated -- we knew that already -- it's that the U.S. government inadvertently aided the hackers.

In order to comply with government search warrants on user data, Google created a backdoor access system into Gmail accounts. This feature is what the Chinese hackers exploited to gain access.

Of course, both of these can be true. Even if Google built a surveillance tool for the purpose of lawful intercept, presumably it wasn't something you could just connect to without authorization, so I would imagine that you would need to do some hacking to get access to it (unless, of course, the password is "1234").

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My assumption from the start was that Google was saying "we already felt uncomfortable censoring things, and by demonstrating that you are unwilling to stick to civilized behavior we are going to stop cooperating." I never thought there was any question of the end of censorship of google.cn in any way reducing their risk from hacking. I always assumed that the hacking was a "last straw" sort of thing.

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