Posted by: kenwbudd | September 23, 2010

Google Warning Gmail users on China Spying Attempts

Google is using automated warnings to alert users of its GMAIL messaging service about wide spread attempts to access personal mail accounts that may indicate wholesale spying by the Chinese government. The victims include one leading privacy activist.

Warnings began appearing when users logged onto GMAIL on Thursday, according to Twitter posts from scores of GMAIL users. Upon accessing their accounts, users encountered a red banner reading “Your account was recently accessed from China,” and providing a list of IP addresses used to access the account.

Users were then encouraged to change their password immediately. Based on Twitter posts, there doesn’t seem to be any pattern to the accounts that were accessed, though one target is a prominent privacy rights activist in the UK who has spoken out against the Chinese government’s censorship of its citizens.

Alexander Hanff of Privacy International in the UK said he saw the warning when he accessed a GMAIL account this morning. Hanff set up the personal account, which Hanff created in 2005 when he operated the Torrent Web site DVDR-Core, an early target of the Motion Picture Association of America in its battle to stop copyright piracy.

Hanff said he immediately changed the password, at Google’s suggestion, and said the attempts to access his account from China were recent – occurring within the past couple months.

He only rarely accesses the account and does not use it for e-mail related to his work for Privacy International. Still, he said the account is easily discoverable online for those looking to contact him via e-mail, which might have made it a target.

However, a survey of other GMAIL users who were warned suggests that the China-based attacks were widespread and lacked a clear pattern. Andrew Turnbull, editor of The Extraordinary Marketing Blog and a recent business school graduate from Alberta, Canada was one.

Others included media consultants, doctors and gamers from the U.S., Canada, Columbia and countries in Europe – most without any clear personal or professional connection to China. Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Hanff, of Privacy International, said he believed the attack on his account was random, not targeted at him as a privacy rights advocate. Those who accessed his account wouldn’t have had access to any sensitive information related to his work for Privacy International, but would have found “a hell of a lot of spam,” Hanff said.

However, he acknowledges that he may have come to the attention of the Chinese Government after a speech he gave at a EU-China Human Rights Network seminar that was attended by high level Chinese government officials. Hanff said he spoke about issues such as freedom of speech, differences between Europe and China and China’s record of suppressing free speech.

Google and its GMAIL messaging system, along with the networks of other high profile U.S. and European firms, were known to have been compromised by attackers believed to be affiliated with the Chinese Military.

Those attacks, code named “Aurora” temporarily caused a rift in relations between the search giant and the Chinese government, with Google suspending all filtering of its search results in China. Recently, experts have warned that a new round of attacks similar to the original Aurora attacks had been detected, though its unclear if the e-mail hacking is related to that wave of activity.

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