Reporting from Los Angeles and Beijing — Hackers in China obtained access to the personal Google email accounts of senior U.S. government officials, Chinese political activists, officials from several Asian countries, journalists, military personnel and hundreds of others, Google said Wednesday in a blog post.
The Internet company said it was able to disrupt the attack on its email service, Gmail, but not before the hackers were able to monitor the accounts.
Google did not disclose in the post what information might have been exposed, and it declined to comment beyond the blog post.
An FBI spokeswoman, Jenny Shearer, said the agency was "working with Google to review this matter."
Google said in the post that it had notified victims and relevant government authorities of the account intrusions. The company said it believed the hackers were able to obtain passwords to Gmail accounts and change settings to have the emails forwarded elsewhere.
Google was last a victim of hacker attacks in December 2009. However, the attacks from two years ago were much more sophisticated, said Tin Zaw, the Los Angeles chapter president of the Open Web Application Security Project, a nonprofit organization focused on raising security awareness among Internet users and developers.
Zaw said the 2009 attacks were like breaking into a home, whereas the most recent attacks resembled a con artist tricking a victim into handing over the keys to a home.
"What they are trying to do is trick you into typing your password into some Web form that looks like Gmail's login screen," Zaw said. "Basically, the hackers are tricking you into revealing your password to them."
The attacks, Google said, were believed to have originated out of Jinan, the capital of eastern Shandong province. The city is home to the Lanxiang Vocational School, an institution that reportedly has had close ties to the military and has been a source of Chinese hacking.
The news set off a flurry of debate on Chinese blogs and Internet forums about whether or not the school could be involved. Some blog posts were incredulous that the obscure Lanxiang site, which touts its culinary program on television commercials, would find itself at the center of global cyber-intrigue.
When contacted Thursday morning in China, an operator at the school said all the faculty members were on vacation and unavailable for comment.
Google's allegations about the attack come at a time when authorities in China have increased controls over the Internet, shutting down micro-blogs deemed sensitive, blocking foreign websites and shutting off access to some proxy servers that allowed users to scale the country's firewall.
Google is the second most popular search engine in China, but the relationship between the company and country has been rocky. In January 2010, Google defied the Chinese government when it said it would no longer censor search results on its Chinese website, google.cn. It was a contentious and public spat.
In July, the Chinese government surprised many observers by renewing Google's license to operate its website there. Google, however, is still redirecting all users in mainland China to its Hong Kong-based site.