In China, new Gmail attacks are latest in a long series

New York, January 19, 2010—Foreign correspondents in Beijing told the Committee to Protect Journalists that they are aware of recent hacker attacks on colleagues’ Gmail accounts, and said they have long assumed that their e-mail is monitored and vulnerable to attack. 

According to a Monday posting on the Foreign Correspondents Club of China Web site, “Foreign correspondents in a few bureaus in Beijing have recently discovered that their Gmail accounts had been hijacked.” In its posting, the FCCC said e-mails in the affected accounts were being forwarded to strangers’ addresses. Google spokesman Scott Rubin told CPJ today he had no comment on the FCCC posting.

On January 13, CPJ expressed concern after Google, which owns Gmail, said it had uncovered evidence of cyber attacks 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.

“E-mail security is a major concern in China. Although attacks like these have not been directly linked to the government, the timing of these new assaults is worrisome given the dispute surrounding Google in China,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “During the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, for example, many journalists and media support groups, including CPJ, were subject to attempts by hackers to break into computers.”

David Bandurski, a researcher at Hong Kong University’s China Media Center, said some bloggers in China are talking openly about increasing controls on digital communications. Blogger Tan Yifei called it “a bitter winter” for China’s Internet.

Several foreign reporters told CPJ they have long assumed that their e-mail and telephone communications are vulnerable to government monitoring, and that pro-government hackers are continuing to target reporters. None of the journalists with whom CPJ spoke to wanted to be identified for fear of attracting the government’s attention.

“E-mail security is always a problem in China. There was surveillance around the Olympics; we assume that during times like the Tibet riots [in 2008] or during big party conferences that we’ll be more closely watched,” a longtime correspondent for a large U.S. news organization told CPJ. “Surveillance and attacks like this are part of the reality when you work in China,” a freelance reporter told CPJ.

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.

CPJ has reported extensively on both hacker attacks and government surveillance. In May 2006, CPJ reported that hackers obtained journalists’ e-mail exchanges. In a pre-Olympics report, “Falling Short,” CPJ took an in-depth look at the government’s surveillance of the Internet and e-mail.