Google admits Middle Eastern governments could be spying on its users as it warns of ‘state-sponsored’ hacking attacks

By Hugo Gye

PUBLISHED:16:41 EST, 3  October 2012| UPDATED:16:41 EST, 3 October 2012

Google has launched a new effort to warn its  users that they could be the victims of cyberattacks from hostile  governments.

Account-holders working in international  relations, development and other sensitive areas have received messages from the  search giant informing them of recent efforts to spy on their online  history.

The move comes after the company started  detecting ‘tens of thousands’ of new hacking attacks originating in the Middle  East.

Warning: Google has sent this message to a number of at-risk users
Warning: Google has sent this message to a number of  at-risk users

Google is a tempting target for hackers, as  it is not focussed solely on search but also offers its users services such as  email, mapping and Chrome, one of the most popular web browsers.

This week, according to the New York  Times, users thought to have been  targeted saw a message attached to their accounts saying, ‘Warning: We believe  state-sponsored attackers may be attempting to compromise your account or  computer.’

This is not the first time that Google has  detected hostile online activity apparently coming from or supported by national  governments.

The firm first issued warnings about  cybersecurity to a few users in June this year – but an investigation since then  has revealed many more security breaches than previously thought.

A member of Google’s security team, Mike  Wiacek, told the Times that ‘tens of thousands of new users’ would receive  warnings that their accounts had been compromised.

Those who took to Twitter to report receiving  the warnings include national-security journalists and employees of  international think-tanks.

Target: The firm is tempting for hackers as it holds information on search, email, mapping and much more
Target: The firm is tempting for hackers as it holds  information on search, email, mapping and much more

Mr Wiacek added that the Middle East had been  a particularly common source of state-sponsored hacking attacks, with online  spies active in ‘a slew of different countries’.

While he refused to specify which governments  were suspected to be behind the cyber-espionage, countries such as Bahrain, Iran  and Turkmenistan have recently been accused of spying on dissidents through the  internet.

And Iran in particular has been active in  using online warfare to supplement its conventional capabilities, according to  security experts.

However, many of the most spectacular  instances of computer-based hostility have come from the U.S. and its allies  such as Israel.

Most spectacularly, a virus known as Stuxnet  which temporarily shut down Iran’s nuclear programme is believed to have  resulted from a collaboration between the CIA and Israeli  intelligence.

As well as the complex task of crippling  whole computer systems, state-sponsored hackers can attempt to gather  information about other regimes or on political dissidents from their own  country.

Google has previously clashed with  governments attempting to exert control over their citizens’ use of the  web.

The firm launched a Chinese version of its  search engine with certain sites excluded from the results, but later pulled out  of the country for fear of violating its own free-speech principles

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Link to the NY Times Article:

http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/10/02/google-warns-new-state-sponsored-cyberattack-targets/