Google and China aren’t exactly pals. The Internet company pulled part of its business out of mainland China last year, saying it was fed up with Beijing-imposed censorship regulations and what it believes were Chinese-originated attacks on its systems. (The fact that Google was lagging behind domestic search engines might have been a factor, too.) But the mistrust between the Internet giant and the national colossus ratcheted up further on Wednesday when Google announced that hackers had tried to access the Gmail accounts of hundreds of people, including U.S. and South Korean government officials, Chinese political activists, members of the military and even the odd journalist. The computer offensive, Google claims, seems to have originated in the eastern Chinese city of Jinan, which happens to the headquarters of one of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) regional commands. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said the FBI will look into Google’s claims.
On Thursday, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson denied the attacks came from the mainland, hinting that those who blamed China had “ulterior motives.” China “consistently opposes any criminal activities that damage the Internet and computer networks, including hacking, and cracks down on these activities according to law,” said spokesperson Hong Lei. Indeed, China’s Defense Ministry announced last month that the PLA was setting up a so-called online blue army dedicated to defending the country from cyber assaults—a move that elicited chuckles from some Internet analysts who contend that many hacking attacks unleashed on foreign governments appear to come from China itself.
News of the phishing attacks, in which victims were sent a fake Gmail login screen that was designed to snare their password information, came just as some web users in China were complaining of slower-than-usual Internet service and increased blocking of sensitive websites. The problems coincide with the run-up to the anniversary of the June 4 Tiananmen massacre when, if previous years are any guide, a crackdown on Internet activity occurs. Even some people who use virtual private networks (VPNs) to subvert the censors have been foiled by error messages that show up when trying to access banned sites like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Even taking Google out of the equation, virtual China isn’t an easy place to be.