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Google's stance on China shatters security inhibitions

Google 'chutzpah' puts focus on policy and doing the right thing

By , Network World
January 14, 2010 01:08 PM ET

Network World - For years U.S. corporations have been loath to openly discuss instances of corporate espionage conducted against them online or through social engineering, but Google this week has shattered that inhibition with its declarations about cyberattacks originating from China.

Google attack part of widespread spying effort

Without directly accusing the Chinese government, Google said that in mid-December it became aware that sophisticated attacks from China had resulted in theft of intellectual property. Attackers also tried to access the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists, with limited success, Google revealed. Google went public and insisted it will no longer adhere to the  Chinese government's online censorship rules, even though that may mean ending business operations there. In doing so, Google has taken a stand that could have historic ramifications politically and defies conventional reactions to security incidents, many say.

"When these kinds of attacks happen, no company wants to step forward and say 'it happened to us,'" notes Mary Landesman, senior security researcher at ScanSafe. But Google, which "has the technological ability to make credible assertions" by declaring it happened to them, "is shedding light on a problem that everyone in the security industry has been talking about and worrying about."

Google's boldness to push forward on human right issues in the face of what might otherwise be seen as a "company's worst nightmare," and discuss cyberattacks that may well have originated with a foreign government is historic, Landesman points out.

"This takes a tremendous amount of chutzpah," Landesman says, noting Google's stance is one of the "best things that could possibly happen." In general, she adds, companies will have to continue to assume that online communications across the globe will be hostile and dangerous.

Many security industry veterans appear to share a sense of history in the making.

"It's a watershed event in security," says George Kurtz, worldwide CTO at McAfee, about Google's actions. "It's a leader in the industry coming forward" to publicly discuss what few are ever willing to discuss.

"I've never seen a gorilla this huge in the industry say definitely they've been attacked, they're fed up and they're going to take action about it," Kurtz says. "It's a watershed event in security that has people thinking about security in their daily lives, and about privacy and censorship."

Meanwhile, information is emerging that the attack against Google appears to have also struck about 30 other companies in the December timeframe. "It's the tip of the iceberg," Kurtz says.

McAfee, in fact, is examining some of the malware code on behalf of some of those victim companies.

One method of malware delivery McAfee sees associated with the attacks is "spear phishing," in which individuals are targeted with e-mail containing dangerous attachments. McAfee's analysis so far shows it was a browser-based attack, not a PDF exploit, and some of the malware delivery may have come from the Web.

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