Google Warns Gmail Users of ‘State-Sponsored Attacks’

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Ng Han Guan, File / AP

In this March 23, 2010 file photo, flowers are placed on the Google logo outside Google's China headquarters in Beijing

Google has begun warning some users of its Gmail service that their accounts may have been targets of “state-sponsored attacks.” An announcement on Google’s Online Security blog doesn’t detail who the Internet giant suspects of ordering the attacks on the popular email service, but several Gmail users in China reported receiving warning messages, including employees at dissident artist Ai Weiwei’s studio, McClatchy Newspapers’ Beijing bureau chief Tom Lasseter and TIME Beijing reporter Chengcheng Jiang. Eric Grosse, a Google vice president of security engineering, wrote that the company “can’t go into the details without giving away information that would be helpful to these bad actors, but our detailed analysis — as well as victim reports — strongly suggest the involvement of states or groups that are state-sponsored.”

The announcement comes just days after Google announced a new feature for users in China that highlights sensitive search terms that could cause their connection to be disrupted. While the tool doesn’t explicitly spell out that the disruptions are due to China’s system of online censorship, the implications weren’t lost on Chinese Internet users.

(MORE: Axis of Suppression: China, Facebook and Iran, Says Google’s Sergey Brin)

Google’s new warning of “state-sponsored attacks” echoes claims it made in 2010, when it cited attacks on the email accounts of human rights activists in China as one of the reasons it was dropping its policy of complying with Chinese censorship demands. Those attacks, however, were aimed at Google’s infrastructure, while the latest effort appears to be phishing or malware schemes designed to steal users’ passwords. “These warnings are not being shown because Google’s internal systems have been compromised or because of a particular attack,” Grosse wrote.

While Google did not single out China in the warnings, the company’s latest move will likely further undermine its relations with the Chinese government. Following its 2010 decision to stop censoring results according to Chinese demands, Google has seen its share of the Chinese Internet search market decline significantly. Searches through are now difficult because a huge list of sensitive words can trigger disrupted connections. Baidu, a domestic Chinese Internet giant, censors its own search engine, so while users may not see some results, their connection is far less likely to be interrupted by the Great Firewall. It now holds a dominant share of the Chinese search market, earning revenues last year of $2.3 billion, an increase of 83.2% from the previous year.

(MORE: Google Calls Out China for Slowing Down Access to Gmail, Other Services)