Internet search giant Google says the security of some of its Gmail accounts, including those belonging to U.S. officials and Chinese rights activists, has been compromised by "phishing" attacks originating in China.
"We recently uncovered a campaign to collect user passwords, likely through phishing ... which appears to originate from Jinan, China," the company said in a blog post on Thursday.
Phishing involves attempts by third parties to secure personal details like login names and passwords to secure online accounts, often through the use of fraudulent e-mails and Web pages.
Google said the attacks had affected what seemed to be the personal Gmail accounts of hundreds of users including, among others, senior U.S. government officials, Chinese political activists, officials in several Asian countries (predominantly South Korea), military personnel, and journalists.
"The goal of this effort seems to have been to monitor the contents of these users’ e-mails," the post said.
It said the perpetrators apparently used stolen passwords to forward mail to another account, unknown to the user.
Chinese official hit out at the accusations.
"Blaming these misdeeds on China is unacceptable," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a news briefing in Beijing.
"The claims of so-called Chinese state support for hacking are completely fictitious and have ulterior motives," Hong said.
"Hacking is an international problem and China is also a victim."
His reaction was echoed in official media, with Xinhua news agency publishing an opinion piece saying Google's claim destroyed online trust.
"It was too imprudent for the online giant to lash out at others without solid proof to support its accusation," the commentary said.
In March, Google accused the Chinese government of disrupting its e-mail services inside China, as netizens complained of inaccessible accounts and attempts to steal their passwords.
Gmail account holders have been complaining to the California-based company of disruption for several weeks, coinciding with annual parliamentary sessions in Beijing and anonymous calls for protests inspired by recent uprisings in the Middle East, the company said.
Users of popular microblogging services frequently report similar experiences.
Many Chinese netizens, who are used to the daily restrictions imposed by China's complex Internet system of blocks, filters and human censorship known collectively as the Great Firewall, have tended to assume that the problem originated with China's Internet police.
Recently, netizens have also reported problems using circumvention tools like WiTopia, 12vpn, and Strongvpn.com, known as "virtual-private network" or VPN services, which encrypt Internet traffic and route it through servers outside China, bypassing government controls.
Google said in January 2010 that it had been the target of cyber-attacks that originated in China, with the Gmail accounts of rights activists affected.
The company later redirected China search-engine traffic to Hong Kong and scaled down its presence in China.
In Thursday's blog post, Google said it had "disrupted" the phishing campaign.
"We have notified victims and secured their accounts. In addition, we have notified relevant government authorities," the company blog post said.
China had a total of 477 million Internet users by late March, 2011.
Note: Published by courtesy of Radio Free Asia.