Last Updated on May 24, 2015
Last week, for the second time since June, Google warned his Gmail users of possible state-sponsored attacks. According to Mike Wiacek, a manager on Google’s information security team, Google started to alert users to state-sponsored attacks three months ago. Meanwhile the security team has gathered new intelligence about attack methods and the groups deploying them, and that information was used to warn “tens of thousands of new users”, possible targets of the attack.
Apparently this increase in state-sponsored activity comes from the Middle East, although no particular countries have been explicitly quoted.
This is not the first time that Gmail is the target of alleged state-sponsored attacks, unfortunately the secrets hidden inside the mailboxes have proven to be a too tempting target for states without scruples.
June 5, 2012: Eric Grosse, Google VP Security Engineering issues a Security warnings for suspected state-sponsored attacks.The warning seems more a preventive measure than the result of a true campaign.
September 8, 2011: As consequence of the infamous Diginotar Breach by the so-called Comodo Hacker, Google advises its users in Iran to change their Gmail passwords, and check that their Google accounts have not been compromised. Several Iranian users who may have been hit by a man-in-the-middle attack are contacted directly.
June 1, 2011: In an unusual blog post, Google declares to have discovered and alerted hundreds of people victims of a targeted “phishing” scam originating from Jinan, the capital of Shandong province. Hackers aimed to get complete control of 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 does not rule out the possibility of the attack being state-sponsored, although China firmly denies Gmail hacking accusations.
January 13, 2010: In a blog post, Google discloses the details of the infamous Operation Aurora. A highly sophisticated and targeted attack on its corporate infrastructure originating from China that resulted in the theft of intellectual property from Google. At least twenty other large companies from a wide range of businesses have been targeted, but the primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists (only two Gmail accounts appear to have been accessed with limited damage). As part of the investigation (but independent of the attack on Google), it turns out that the accounts of dozens of U.S.-, China- and Europe-based Gmail users, advocates of human rights in China, appear to have been routinely accessed via phishing scams or malware placed on the users’ computers.
State-Sponsored attacks or not, setting a complex password and enabling 2-step verification are two effective countermeasures to mitigate the risk.
An Advanced Anti-Malware solution can be really effecive as well, such as Lastline. It is not a coincidence that Wepawet, based on our technology, was the first to detect the Internet Explorer “Aurora” Memory Corruption exploit behind the state-sponsored Operation Aurora.