SAN FRANCISCO: Suspected Chinese hackers tried to steal the passwords of hundreds of Google email account holders, including those of senior U.S. government officials, Chinese activists and journalists, the Internet company said.
The perpetrators appeared to originate from Jinan, the capital of China's eastern Shandong province, Google said. Jinan is home to one of six technical reconnaissance bureaus belonging to the People's Liberation Army and a technical college that U.S. investigators last year linked to a previous attack on Google.
Washington said it was investigating Google's claims while the FBI said it was working with Google following the attacks -- the latest computer-based invasions directed at multinational companies that have raised global alarm about Internet security.
The hackers recently tried to crack and monitor email accounts by stealing passwords, but Google detected and "disrupted" their campaign, the world's largest Web search company said on its official blog.
The revelation comes more than a year after Google disclosed a cyberattack on its systems that it said it traced to China, and could further strain an already tense relationship between the Web giant and Beijing.
Google partially pulled out of China, the world's largest Internet market by users, last year after a tussle with the government over censorship and a serious hacking episode.
"We recently uncovered a campaign to collect user passwords, likely through phishing," Google said, referring to the practice where computer users are tricked into giving up sensitive information.
"The goal of this effort seems to have been to monitor the contents of these users' emails."
It "affected what seem 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."
Google did not say the Chinese government was behind the attacks or say what might have motivated them.
But cyberattacks originating in China have become common in recent years, said Bruce Schneier, chief security technology officer at telecommunications company BT.
"It's not just the Chinese government. It's independent actors within China who are working with the tacit approval of the government," he said.
The United States has warned that a cyberattack -- presumably if it is devastating enough -- could result in real-world military retaliation, although analysts say it could be difficult to detect its origin with full accuracy.
Lockheed Martin Corp, the U.S. government's top information technology provider, said last week it had thwarted "a significant and tenacious attack" on its information systems network, though the company and government officials have not yet said where they think the attack originated.
"We have no reason to believe that any official U.S. government email accounts were accessed," said White House spokesman Tommy Vietor.
A spokesman at South Korea's presidential office said the Blue House had not been affected, but added they did not use Gmail. South Korea's Ministry of Strategy and Finance said it had warned all staff "not to use, send or receive any official information through private emails such as Gmail.