Published on 13 Jan 2010 Sections ,

Q&A: Google China cyber-attack

Google Communications Director Peter Barron on why the internet giant is considering ending its operations in China in the wake of a series of cyber-attacks.

Google China

What happened?
In December we discovered that Google had been the target of an unusually sophisticated attack, and that a primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists.

We do not believe they achieved that goal. But our investigation revealed something much bigger. In addition to Google, more than 20 other big companies have been similarly targeted. And, separate from these attacks, we discovered that the Gmail accounts of dozens of human rights activists interested in China were routinely accessed using phishing scams and malware, not via Google.

Why are you taking this action?
Because we feel we have to take a new approach in China. When we launched our service in China we did so 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 search results.

These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered — as well as attempts over the past year to limit free speech on the web even further — have led us to conclude that we are no longer comfortable self-censoring results in China and so we are reviewing the feasibility of our operations there.

What outcome are you hoping for?

The same thing we’ve always hoped for: to be able to operate securely in China and in a way that increases access to information for our users in China.

What does this mean for Google in China?
It’s not clear. We will be talking to the Chinese authorities about the possibility of operating an uncensored search service within China. If it is impossible to operate an uncensored service within the law, we will close Google.cn. We will obviously continue to offer Chinese-language search on our global search engine.

Are Google services safe to use?
We believe they’re safe to use. That’s why our employees use them all day, every day. We have taken significant additional steps since the attack to protect our systems and our users.

We would also advise people to protect themselves online by making sure they change their passwords regularly, and by using anti-virus software and upgrading their browsers.

Do you believe these attacks were driven by the government in China?
We don’t know. We’re not going to speculate, because we don’t know. What’s clear is that the environment in which we are operating in terms of an open Internet is not improving in China. That, combined with these attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered, mean that we’re no longer comfortable censoring our search in China and we are reviewing the feasibility of our operations there.

Have any Chinese dissidents to your knowledge been arrested or imprisoned as a result?
Not to our knowledge. It’s important to note that as part of the investigation but independent of the attack on Google, we discovered that the accounts of dozens of US-, China-, and Europe-based Gmail users who are advocates of human rights in China were being routinely accessed by third parties.

These accounts were not accessed through any security breach at Google, but likely accessed via phishing scams and malware used to infect individual computers.

How sophisticated exactly were these attacks?
The attack appears to have been perpetrated using sophisticated, customized malware to infect personal computers. We can’t provide further detail, though.

Technology Correspondent Ben Cohen predicts that Google will be allowed to stay in China “with revised terms”. What might those terms be?
We can’t speculate about how the Chinese authorities will respond.

What’s the likely effect of any possible Google pull-out on the company’s long-term growth.
While our revenues from China are immaterial, we did just have our best ever quarter there. We’ve never provided financial guidance, and we can’t do so now.

Have other successful cyber attacks been launched previously against Google in China? If so can you provide detail?
I’m afraid we can’t go into detail

What are the implications for other overseas web companies – such as Microsoft – operating in China?
We couldn’t speculate on other businesses. You should ask them.

Has the whole China issue become too painful for Google and its “don’t be evil” policy?
When we launched our service in China we did so 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 search results.

These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered — as well as attempts over the past year to limit free speech on the web even further — have led us to conclude that we are no longer comfortable self-censoring results in China and so we are reviewing the feasibility of our operations there.

Are any of the components of the Nexus One made in China?
You’d have to ask HTC, the device manufacturer.

How does the China firewall work?

We’re not the best people to comment on how the China firewall works, I’m afraid. Here’s some information on Google’s history in China for your background:

– Number of employees in China: several hundred
– Offices: 3 (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou)
– Types of employees: engineering and sales
– Market share, market position: we don’t disclose numbers

September 2000
Announcement of Chinese (simplified and traditional) language versions of Google.com search.

July 2005
Announcement of Kai-Fu Lee hiring as VP of eng & president of Google China and plans to open R&D center in China.

Late 2005
First Google office in China opens.

Until early 2006
Chinese language version of Google.com was available to Chinese Internet users; it was hosted in servers in the US but could be reached by users within China. Over time, however, access to this from within China became highly unreliable.

January 2006
Launch of Google.cn, our website for the PRC which filters search results. In order to host this site on servers within China, we agree to remove information from our search results that the Chinese government deems sensitive or destabilizing.

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