Google’s new warning tool flags ‘state-sponsored’ attacks

The Google logo is reflected in windows of the company's China head office as the Chinese national flag flies in the wind in Beijing (AFP Photo/Li Xin)
Google has a new trick up its sleeve. The internet company introduced a new warning system to let users know about “suspected state-sponsored” attacks.

“We are constantly on the lookout for malicious activity on our systems, in particular attempts by third parties to log into users’ accounts unauthorized” said Eric Grosse, Google VP of security engineering in a blog post on Wednesday.

“Today, we’re taking that a step further for a subset of our users, who we believe may be the target of state-sponsored attacks.”

If Google suspects your account is being targeted by a government attack, a banner will appear at the top of your screen warning the user and suggesting courses of action, such as increasing password and account security.

Google says the suspicious activity it flags may be nothing more than a phishing or malware attack, but Grosse does add an ominous note.

“You might ask how we know this activity is state-sponsored. We can’t go into the details without giving away information that would be helpful to these bad actors, but our detailed analysis—as well as victim reports—strongly suggest the involvement of states or groups that are state-sponsored.”

Google, whose unofficial slogan is “Don’t be evil”, has recently had several large confrontations with the Chinese government. 

In 2010, the internet giant and China engaged in a politically charged standoff when Google accused the world’s most populous nation of attempting to hack its accounts in order to gain information on Chinese political activists and journalists. Google’s response was to cease voluntary censorship of its search results in mainland China, routing all Chinese language internet searches through its Hong Kong site.  Hong Kong is protected by an international treaty and exists partially outside of mainland China’s jurisdiction and censorship laws. China answered via its state run newspaper The People’s Daily, where it claimed Google was working as an agent for US intelligence services. On March 30th, 2010, Google’s search engine was completely blocked by the Chinese government.

Google has also drawn intense criticism from the US and European Union for its new privacy policy that it unveiled in February. Google claimed that by pooling users’ information from across all Google sites such as YouTube, the company created a “beautifully simple, intuitive user experience.” Critics argued that Google was only interested in generating new advertising revenue. European and US courts claimed the new policy represented an invasion of user privacy.

The latest announcement also comes on the heels of the Flame virus, which analysts say was designed by the same entity that unleashed duqu and stuxnet. Analysts say that the viruses were most likely commissioned by a world government in a highly coordinated cyber-attack against an unknown enemy. All leads point to a collaborative US-Israeli effort against Iran.

Google has become increasingly active in its pursuit of user privacy, switching both its Gmail and search engine pages to the encoded “https” format.

“We believe it is our duty to be proactive in notifying users about attacks or potential attacks so that they can take action to protect their information,” Grosse concludes in his post. “And we will continue to update these notifications based on the latest information.”