Google's chief legal officer revealed on Tuesday that the company and more than 20 other technology, financial and software companies were targeted by hackers, motivated to steal intellectual property and intelligence on human rights activists.
[ The U.S. has asked the Chinese government for an explanation, saying the Google hack raises serious concerns. | Learn how to secure your systems with Roger Grimes' Security Adviser blog and Security Central newsletter, both from InfoWorld. ]
In protest, Google said it would stop censoring search engine results as demanded by the Chinese government and is considering halting its business within the country.
"I think the logic is clear: Google is disappointed, perhaps, with the result of its policy to agree to be censored in China," said Whit Andrews, lead Google analyst for Gartner. "They are no doubt frustrated by security breaches which they perceive are related to their existence in China."
But Andrews and others analysts say the distributed nature of the Internet means Google and other enterprises are at no less risk from hackers sympathetic to Chinese policy by not doing business in that country.
"My sense is that there would be relatively no major impact on Google's ability to defend itself based on whether it has business operations in China or not," Andrews said.
To steal information from computers, hackers often try to trick people into installing malicious software. Hackers can do that through social engineering, such as constructing an e-mail that appears to come from a friend or colleague but that carries a malicious program or file as an attachment.
The technique is known as spear phishing. Last year, researchers from the SecDev Group, a think tank, and the Munk Center for International Studies at the University of Toronto revealed a deep spying network dubbed GhostNet that in part used spear phishing to infect computers in 103 countries. Although some of the computers involved in GhostNet were found to be in China, the government there denied any involvement in the massive spying network.
In one example, computers belonging to Tibetan activists were sent e-mails containing a malicious Microsoft Word document that would exploit a vulnerability in that application, installing other software that allowed hackers to steal documents.
"Since then, of course, we've attempted to take a number of security precautions so that this type of incident doesn't happen again," said Tenzin Taklha, spokesman for the Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India. "It's an ongoing effort. It's not just something that you do in one day."