Dramatic news from Google on “Chinese cyber-attack”

If this is accurate, it is quite a story. A sophisticated, large-scale cyber-attack from within China is causing Google to overhaul its Chinese operations and possibly stop censoring the search results on google.cn. The story has everything – human rights, censorship, America’s leading brand, cybercrime, intrigue and an unprecedentedly open statement from Google.

You can read a good summary of the breaking story over here.

Google is releasing information about a “highly sophisticated and targeted attack” on their corporate infrastructure that occurred last month. The attack originated in China and resulted in the “theft of intellectual property from Google.” In light of the attack Google is making sweeping changes to its Chinese operations.

Google is releasing some information about these attacks to the public. The company says that a minimal amount of user information was compromised, but has come to the alarming conclusion that the attacks were targeting the information of Chinese human rights activists. Google found that these attacks were not just going after Google’s data, but were also targeting at least twenty other major companies spanning sectors including Internet, finance, chemicals, and more. Google has also discovered that phishing attacks have been used to compromise the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists around the world.

In light of the attacks, and after attempts by the Chinese government to further restrict free speech on the web, Google has decided it will deploy a fully uncensored version of its search engine in China.

At first I didn’t believe it. Then I saw it from the horse’s mouth, Google’s own blog:

We launched Google.cn 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 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.

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 Google.cn the success it is today. We are committed to working responsibly to resolve the very difficult issues raised.

This is kind of slapdash; I wasn’t supposed to be blogging today as I’m on deadline. But this story is totally unbelievable, off the charts.

Thanks to the reader who alerted me to this.

Update – From the NYT

Google threatened late Tuesday to pull out of its operations in China after it said it had uncovered a massive cyber attack on its computers that originated there….

Google said that a primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human right activists, but that the attack also targeted 20 other large companies in the finance, technology, media and chemical sectors.

In a blog posting by David Drummond, the corporate development and chief legal officer, Google said that it had found a “highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from 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,” Mr. Drummond wrote in a blog post.

He wrote that Google was no longer willing to censor results on its Chinese-language search engine and would discuss with Chinese authorities whether it could operate an uncensored search engine in that country.

“We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China,” Mr. Drummond wrote, adding that the decision was being driven by executives in the United States, “without the knowledge or involvement of our employees in China.”

Yeah, a very big story. I’m waiting for the conspiracy theorists who claim this is google’s creative strategy for exiting China, where things never went quite the way they expected, while making them look like the victim instead of the loser. (And no, I don’t necessarily believe that. I just know how the minds of some of my more strident commenters work. Being a PR guy, it was the first thing that crossed my mind when I heard the story – I couldn’t help it.)

Update 2: The Wall Street Journal is featuring this as their top story today, and they state:

Much of the data stolen from Google was its “core source code,” Mr. Mulvenon [director of a national security firm] said. “If you have the source code, you can potentially figure out how to do Google hacks that get all kinds of interesting data.” Among the data, would be the information needed to identify security flaws in Google’s systems, he said.

The attackers used at least seven different types of attack code to identify and steal data from Google, said Rafal Rohozinski, a principal at the SecDev Group, a Canadian security consulting firm that discovered a major Chinese spying operation on the Dalai Lama last year.

I bring this up because it calls to mind a comment I left in the earlier thread:

[D]on’t fool yourself about google. They may let you download a song for free. Would they hand you the source code for their search algorithm? No, because then they wouldn’t be Google anymore. They’d just be one of a trillions of other companies offering the same thing.

This was in response to a commenter praising Google for not caring about intellectual property and being a proponent of open-source technology (you can actually do both – be a proponent of open source and value IP). Obviously Google does care about IP, a lot – as it must. Its core source code is its bread and butter.

Post updated at 8:24pm Arizona time. Is it all a PR stunt?

______________

Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 89 Comments

Yanno, if China wants to be a leader in the global economy, then it has to participate in the global conversation. And you know what, that means using Google.

Sure, things change overnight. Companies come and companies go. Maybe in a couple of years, Baidu will be the arbitrator of global dialog.

But I don’t think so.

January 13, 2010 @ 3:13 pm | Comment

@wk

Except for that the US government doesn’t then censor out all dissenting opinion from the public record on threat of imprisonment in an attempt to falsify a kind of unity in the public consciousness.

January 13, 2010 @ 3:27 pm | Comment

@Geoff
Wait a second, let’s first compare the two governments. US government sent army to Iraq and Afghanistan, which has deprived some people’s most basic human right-living, it is true that the criticism from some dissidents hasn’t been censored in Chinese way, but that hasn’t stopped the atrocity committed by US government, and yet we are seeing more US troops being sent to Afghanistan. On the other hand, the Chinese government censors, sometimes arrests dissidents, blocks some foreign websites and also forces some foreign business to comply with its rules. If human rights are as universal as claimed by people from western world, then people from all over the world should be treated equally, so in terms of violating human rights, which government is more evil?
If Google is so concerned about human rights, then it should not have stepped into China in the first place, when it decides to confront Chinese government, it should do the same thing to other governments, including US to truly make it a company with ethics. To me, the move by Google is more like a business decision, I really doubt its Chinese segment generates any meaningful revenue, in the near future, it is hardly to see that Google can compete with local rivals, like Baidu.

Personally I have been a faithful user of Google for many years and believes competitors like Google can only do good to the health of Chinese internet market, but business is business, politics is politics.

January 13, 2010 @ 4:24 pm | Comment

pug_ster,

The Google blog does say intellectual property was stolen. Are you calling Google a liar? Do you have evidence to the contrary? What proof do you have that Chinese authorities went to Google and asked formally? How do you even know they were dissident’s accounts? Are you saying if Google abided by their privacy clause, the Chinese government is then justified to attack and hack Google’s database? Assuming they were indeed dissidents, do you think dissidents and terrorists are the same thing?

The only important thing is how much money Google will lose if they go through with this. What is clear is that China has always adopted discriminatory policies against foreign companies, especially internet companies like Yahoo, eBay, Amazon, etc while at the same time calling out others for being protectionist.

January 13, 2010 @ 4:26 pm | Comment

I’ve said it before and I will say it again:
Don’t forget how the Qing dynasty government rotted in (similar) ignorance and arrogance.

January 13, 2010 @ 4:43 pm | Comment

Cypher, they’ll just blame it on the fact that the Qing was run by evil foreign Manchus and therefore “real” Chinese have nothing to do with its failures.

January 13, 2010 @ 4:45 pm | Comment

@wk

I can appreciate how the concept of society being comfortable with their mistakes so long as the government isn’t allowed to dictate the terms on how and when those mistakes may be presented may seem like an extraordinarily bourgeois point of view.

But I hope you can appreciate that the idea of a society where if something is going wrong you may not have the right to dissent about it seems to us draconian. We may simply need to agree to disagree.

January 13, 2010 @ 4:48 pm | Comment

wk
I think you’ll find, in the case, at least, of Afghanistan, the US army (and allies) allowed many Afghans to return home after exile. It also allowed many groups in Afghanistan to breath freely (Hazaras spring to mind).
Iraq was a clusterf*ck in many ways but most of the atrocities commited there were not by the Americans or allied forces but by home grown terrorists (seemingly predominantly Muslims). Sure, the US should have foreseen that but….
The Chinese government does a bit more that just arrest a few dissidents, block a few sites and other stuff you mention. A few Uyghurs, etc, might dispute what you say – but then they can’t as they’ve been arrested (and killed, in some cases) or driven to exile and hounded by CCP stooges (some of whom are, I am sorry to say, elected western politicians).
So, which is more evil? China, no doubts about it. Which is more ignorant? The US, I’d say. But evil, sorry, it’s the CCP. Ask any FG organ donor…
In which direction to most refugees travel? East or west?

January 13, 2010 @ 4:50 pm | Comment

Hooray for Google!! (Whatever their motives)

Poo to you with nobs on, CCP!

January 13, 2010 @ 4:50 pm | Comment

@wk
Yeah right,the American dissidents can’t stop the US government from bombing Iraq and other counties,so they’d better STFU to make American society more harmonious?Then why bother eating your snacks?You will get hungry soon enough anyway.The point is:the world is not always a good place,but we can always try to make it better.The US dissidents can protest right outside the white house for the tortured prisoners,and such attempt will most likely be “harmonized” before you can say “protest” at this side of the pool.(Yay that old soviet joke can no longer be used to mock our great country!What a improvement!)

January 13, 2010 @ 5:11 pm | Comment

Go Google!
I think it’s going to be a global PR disaster for the Chinese government… if Google boycotts China for it’s government’s bully boy mentality and tactics many millions will follow.

January 13, 2010 @ 5:25 pm | Comment

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January 13, 2010 @ 6:06 pm | Pingback

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January 13, 2010 @ 8:19 pm | Pingback

No surprise, I guess. But wow! Get a load of this:

http://www.chinahush.com/2010/01/13/gmail-security-breach-want-some-proof/

January 13, 2010 @ 10:31 pm | Comment

Jeremy Goldkorn’s article on Google’s extraordinary announcement.

Amazing link, Stuart. Proof positive of China’s censorship. Of course, Imitation Crabmeat will say it’s a technical problem with Gmail’s server. Right.

January 13, 2010 @ 11:21 pm | Comment

Daesong,

pug_ster,

The Google blog does say intellectual property was stolen. Are you calling Google a liar? Do you have evidence to the contrary? What proof do you have that Chinese authorities went to Google and asked formally? How do you even know they were dissident’s accounts? Are you saying if Google abided by their privacy clause, the Chinese government is then justified to attack and hack Google’s database? Assuming they were indeed dissidents, do you think dissidents and terrorists are the same thing?

As I said, Google says that their IP was stolen but did not specify what. Google wasn’t specific enough on what was stolen, so unless they don’t specify what was stolen, then they are not exactly forthcoming. You are asking questions that nobody has answers to, but I can only speculate based on Yahoo’s past dealings with the Chinese government concerning Chinese dissidents using yahoo accounts years back. Google has to comply with China’s laws and regulations and it supersedes your privacy, as there are laws like this in many Western countries.

The only important thing is how much money Google will lose if they go through with this. What is clear is that China has always adopted discriminatory policies against foreign companies, especially internet companies like Yahoo, eBay, Amazon, etc while at the same time calling out others for being protectionist.

You have some kind of proof that China adopted discriminatory policies toward Western Companies? Chinese and Western internet companies operating in China has to comply with laws there and either they can’t compete with local companies or can’t has problems complying with the laws there.

January 13, 2010 @ 11:55 pm | Comment

Pug, please don’t be ridiculous. Everyone knows the hoops China makes foreign companies jump through. If you want a detailed look at the specificsread Joe Studwell’s great book China Dream. Discriminatory policies are a matter of fact and can’t be debated. This is no secret. Every Westerner doing business in China knows this, though they don’t like to discuss it in public because that only makes their work harder. But it has been discussed on the record many, many times.

January 14, 2010 @ 12:05 am | Comment

It is a good time to invest on VPN and proxy providers companies?

1.4 billion customers are waiting.

Any tips?

January 14, 2010 @ 12:24 am | Comment

Richard,

I disagree with what Joe Studwell says because his mentality is that any company who has alot of success in Western Countries thinks that they can go to China, replicate their business model there and reap huge profits. That is simply not true. The local completion are willing to do it cheaper and faster. Many companies pour money and manpower into China but couldn’t make money there, got frustrated and left. Some companies are surviving there knowing that they won’t make money there, but rather they are focusing on getting market share. Other companies who are making money are above the ‘cheaper and faster’ model and focus on quality and service model. To name a few of the companies who are making it in China are GM, Ford, Ikea, Walmart, and Carrefour.

January 14, 2010 @ 12:45 am | Comment

[…] censorship.  Put another way, as an expat friend of mine succinctly notes amid a typically lively discussion on his PekingDuck blog, “Whoever it is, they’ll have to sell out. Business as usual.” […]

January 14, 2010 @ 1:27 am | Pingback

I disagree with what Joe Studwell says because his mentality is that any company who has alot of success in Western Countries thinks that they can go to China, replicate their business model there and reap huge profits. That is simply not true.

Pug, your ignorance is astounding. Studwell’s argument is exactly the opposite of what you say it is. It is about how most Western companies trying to get into the China market fail. Its whole point is that the China Dream is bullshit, that most Western companies that do well in the West are only fooling themselves when they think they can therefore do well in China. And yet you speak for Studwell as if you know something. Sorry, but you know nothing. If you want to shoot your mouth off, at least do a bit of research (like, read the Amazon blurb and some of the comments – or better yet, read the book like I did.) Comments like this betray how you work, with a predictable, reflexive response based on outlandishly, unbelievably false assumptions. This takes the cake, Pug.

January 14, 2010 @ 1:39 am | Comment

@pug
How to run business in China may not be the same as in the rest of the world.But at least you can PRETEND to be open and fair,right?As a Chinese myself,I’d very much like to see our own team thrive,in a healthy way,and beat foreign opponents in market share with innovation and good service,fair and square.Some protectionism is ok to me when it comes to saving our own sparks.But cripple most of the opponent’s key products by out right sabotage is another matter,it will only damage the brand image and the damage is hard to heal.For example many people still remember how baidu hijacked google’s domain to make it redirect to baidu back in 2002.
And by the way I hardly consider bribe all the way up like in China is the right way to do business.

January 14, 2010 @ 1:46 am | Comment

Richard, Cypher,

Maybe I didn’t stress this but do you honestly think China would be favorable to foreign companies? If Chinese companies want a loan, they get money from a Chinese banks. If foreign companies want a loan, they get loan from foreign banks. You think foreign companies doing business in China, they will get a loan from Chinese bank? No. That’s how ‘attracting foreign capital works.’ It is done here in the US, and that’s how it is done in China. That’s not discriminatory, that’s just a fact of life.

January 14, 2010 @ 3:26 am | Comment

I also want to say that dog eat dog world out there in China. It is not just about some Chinese company wants to drown out a foreign company, but Chinese companies do it to each other also. I have read the comments to Studwell’s book, and I agree with Studwell that China Dream is just a Dream. But I disagree on the reasons of why he believes so. Foreign companies have to bribe, they have to establish guanxi. Chinese companies are doing this already. Western companies want to remain ethical will ultimately lose out because they run their businesses like how they do in the West.

January 14, 2010 @ 3:54 am | Comment

Another thing, I don’t see what’s the difference between Chinese companies giving local politicians money in red envelopes and US companies paying off Lobbyists so that they can gain favorable treatment.

January 14, 2010 @ 4:01 am | Comment

Actually, I can´t find the “Update 2: The Wall Street Journal” quote when I follow the link. Did you provide the correct source for this one?

January 14, 2010 @ 4:39 am | Comment

@pug
Sigh…Not this sh!t again.
For too many times,I thought just why some people still hold such thinking patterns so dearly.So when you face the top dog in town the first thing you think is not how to surpass him but rather how to drag him down and beat him with your experience of being at lower level for too long?Heck,even if you win by this,you are still retarded anyway.
And as to your last point,I have to admit that corruption IS a widespread problem,but again this cannot justify corruption itself,same to your every-year influenza.Period.

January 14, 2010 @ 5:03 am | Comment

Pugster, you’re right in your assessment of the way things are run in western countries and eastern countries. Greasing the wheels of commerce involves sweeteners all the time – I believe this was BAe’s defence in the Saudi bribery scandal. Western countries do ethics like any other country – trust me.
Thing is, if you give money, grease the palms, get the promises, sign the contract, then you expect that things will be going your way… You expect dog eat dog, but when a deals done and dusted, you expect to be able to use the law to slap the other dog down. After all, that’s why sweeteners were distributed, no? When you have a deal, you don’t expect the person you signed the contract with to then favour your competitor and give them all your stuff. That’s not on and gives one a very bad name.
Western companies, especially the big ones, are not complete numpties. Small entrepeneurs, maybe, but the likes of Google and GM (OK, maybe not GM… ;-))?
Backstabbing is the norm in that mean ol’ world, so I hear. That’s why there’s laws and stuff to protect IPs and the like. If you want to play, you got to at least play by the rules, otherwise no one picks you anymore….and then they do the same back at you. I hear China is already grumbling about protectionism ;-D

January 14, 2010 @ 5:04 am | Comment

Mike,

Thing is, if you give money, grease the palms, get the promises, sign the contract, then you expect that things will be going your way… You expect dog eat dog, but when a deals done and dusted, you expect to be able to use the law to slap the other dog down. After all, that’s why sweeteners were distributed, no? When you have a deal, you don’t expect the person you signed the contract with to then favour your competitor and give them all your stuff. That’s not on and gives one a very bad name.

I think that bribing officials and trying to screw your competitor are 2 different things.

Backstabbing is the norm in that mean ol’ world, so I hear. That’s why there’s laws and stuff to protect IPs and the like. If you want to play, you got to at least play by the rules, otherwise no one picks you anymore….

Again, I stress that there Google did not elaborate what kind of IP was stolen as the result of the cyberattack and this has nothing to do about backstabbing the other company. I also don’t see how if one company play by the rules, the competitor will do the same.

January 14, 2010 @ 5:44 am | Comment

“I think that bribing officials and trying to screw your competitor are 2 different things”
They are…until they coincide. Screwing the competitor is what a lot of business is all about (the clue’s in the word “competition”) and sometimes the only way to get ahead, the only way to even think of starting, is to pay someone to ease things for you. I’m not even in the business game (I’m a research technician doing cancer research) and I know about this so I figure you’re just being disingenuous here…

As for playing by the rules – see it as a soccer game. You have a framework of rules, there’s a referee but have you ever seen a game where that whistle is not blown for some infringement? And as you watch, you know you’ve seen plenty of fouls that the ref missed…but the game is still recognisable and it flows (or should do). Now, get one team playing soccer and the other playing rugby and even you have to concede that a mismatch will occur…

January 14, 2010 @ 6:54 am | Comment

Here, Pug, read this http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/14/business/global/14western.html?ref=global-home

OK, OK, I know, it’s the NYT, hardly a beacon of “I love China” articles….

January 14, 2010 @ 7:03 am | Comment

Mike,

I rather not discuss about #80 because it is getting off topic and doesn’t talk about google at all. In terms of #81, surprising, once in a while you see some article from NYT that is defending China what what Thomas Friedman wrote recently. In terms of the article relating to google was simply a tirade of complaints from Companies who didn’t do what they expect in China. This includes google as they are losing market share to baidu because they didn’t adopt to the local market.

January 14, 2010 @ 10:10 am | Comment

tRUE ENOUGH, pUG_STER (OK, caps lock off now! Carrying on…)
Was it a case of Google not adapting to the local market or being hamstrung by ….. powers that be that invested in local products? I mean, really, a search engine is a search engine. Like a bicycle – hardly needs to be adapted to fit a market…

January 14, 2010 @ 3:51 pm | Comment

This is what many companies, large and small, may now be thinking about their business with CCP-China.

“If a company like Google, even after accommodating to their demands, gets that kind of treatment, what can of treatment will I get for my business in CCP-China or with CCP-China companies?”

January 14, 2010 @ 3:59 pm | Comment

The pug_ster Mike Goldthorpe feed back loop….

Do you have a paypal account to send you my 50 Cents of a RMB?

It is one or two accounts?

January 14, 2010 @ 4:02 pm | Comment

In early January, Tenzin Seldon, a 20-year-old Stanford student and Tibetan activist, was told by university officials to contact Google because her Gmail account had been hacked.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/14/technology/14google.html

January 14, 2010 @ 5:00 pm | Comment

[…] censorship. Put another way, as an expat friend of mine succinctly notes amid a typically lively discussion on his PekingDuck blog, “Whoever it is, they’ll have to sell out. Business as […]

January 14, 2010 @ 6:09 pm | Pingback

Eco – just send over some braised pork. Give it to pug_ster to bring over 😉

January 15, 2010 @ 4:42 am | Comment

payppork does not exist yet.

😛

January 15, 2010 @ 4:49 am | Comment

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