China hackers hit media companies and activists online

New York, January 13, 2010—The Committee to Protect Journalists expressed concern today after Google said Tuesday it had uncovered evidence of cyber attackers from China targeting its own and other companies’ infrastructures, as well as individual Gmail accounts. CPJ welcomed Google’s statement that it was no longer willing to censor its Chinese search engine,, in light of the discovery.

“We are concerned that threats to e-mail security undermine the safety of journalists working in China, their assistants, and their local sources,” said CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney, who is CPJ’s representative to the board of the Global Network Initiative. “Google’s refusal to continue censoring content is a welcome example of the positive role international companies can play in demanding that China improve access to information.”

In a statement Tuesday by Chief Legal Officer David Drummond, Google said it detected the “highly sophisticated” attacks in December 2009 and that the company will notify at least 20 other Internet, technology, and media companies that they had been similarly targeted. Drummond said that while the two Gmail security breaches to Google’s own servers were minor, its research showed China-based hackers had “routinely accessed” individual Gmail accounts belonging to human rights advocates in China, Europe, and the United States. 

“The fact that media companies may have been targeted underscores the vulnerabilities of journalists working in China,” Mahoney said.

China uses vague state secret charges to imprison Chinese citizens who communicate online about sensitive issues like the government’s human rights record, CPJ research shows. At least one journalist, Shi Tao, was imprisoned in 2005 after Yahoo provided information to Chinese authorities about the personal e-mail account he used to send an internal propaganda department memo overseas.  

Hackers have targeted journalists and their assistants working in China in the past, according to CPJ research. CPJ and other rights organizations were also aware of an increase in cyber attacks, some traced to China, in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The origins of the attacks are not clear.

Drummond said Google planned to discuss with Beijing “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 launched in January 2006, agreeing to content restrictions imposed by Chinese authorities but disclosing to users if search results had been filtered. Uncensored Chinese-language searches remained possible in China on Google also pledged to maintain e-mail and blogging services overseas to protect personal data.

State news agency Xinhua said China was seeking more information from Google. Other coverage in China’s official press censored the wording of Google’s statement, omitting mentions of “free speech” and “surveillance,” according to The New York Times.

China’s censorship and surveillance of the Internet steadily worsened in 2009, under the guise of limiting pornography or maintaining social stability. Several Google services, including video-sharing Web site YouTube, were frequently blocked to users in China during the year.