Chinese hackers ripped into Google’s systems big time last month, and the Internet search giant is now looking to the NSA for help. Breaches in cybersecurity allowed the hackers to steal Google source code, as well as information contained in the Gmail accounts of prominent, Chinese Human Rights activists. The following investigation revealed that over 30 technology, defense, energy, and financial coporations were targeted in the attack, which siphoned off intellectual property to an outside server.
The security systems were breached by a Trojan virus that exploited a vulnerability in Adobe Reader. Innocuous-looking PDF attachments were sent in emails to key leaders in various companies, which installed the malicious software when opened. Adobe patched the software on January 12th, and claims that no sensitive information was compromised. However, Google spokesman Gabriel Stricker admitted the email accounts were accessed, and immediately notified their owners. The attacks on Google were “highly sophisticated,” a term that Google executives do not use lightly, and in response they have ceased censorship of the Chinese language Google.cn and enlisted the aid of the NSA in preventing future attacks.
Google launched the Chinese-language search engine in 2006, after being forced by the Chinese government to remove search results deemed “objectionable.” Now, after the discovery of the attacks targeted at Chinese activists, Google is reversing this decision. If the Chinese government refuses to allow uncensored search results, Google will shut down all business operations in China. This is a landmark in free speech advocacy, as intellectual restrictions imposed by the Chinese communist government are challenged by Silicon Valley technocrats with keys to world’s information.
But as Google challenges the Chinese to remove censorship and allow free information, it may also compromise the intellectual freedom of US citizens by its partnership with the NSA. The US intelligence establishment was already subjected to intense criticism for the warantless wiretapping of overseas telecommunications after 9/11 as part of the Terrorist Surveillance Program. Now the Agency will be working with a company that compiles user’s search requests, email accounts, and hordes of personal data.
The information-sharing agreement between Google and the NSA is aimed to determine the level of expertise of the hackers, their unque cyber-“signatures” and attack methods, and to identify hardware and software weaknesses to prevent further intrusions. But any collaboration between a global information monolith, steward of troves of private data, and a government-sponsored spy agency is bound to have potentially unlawful consequences. Careful restrictions need to be placed on the use of Google account-holders information, or personal privacy may become just an amusing idea of the past.