Google Inc. said it had uncovered a campaign run from inside China secretly to monitor the e-mails of "hundreds" of senior U.S. government figures, South Korean officials and other users of its gmail service.
The claim, made in a company blog post on Wednesday, marks the most serious allegation of Chinese-based Internet intrusion since the search company revealed in January of last year that its own systems had been successfully hacked.
This time, Google laid the blame on so-called phishing attacks or other similar techniques that had been used to trick e-mail users into giving away their passwords, rather than any breach in its own systems.
While the company did not speculate in its blog post about the purpose of the campaign, the range of people targeted and the nature of the attack appeared to indicate political motivations. It said that the gmail users whose accounts had been penetrated included "senior U.S. government officials, Chinese political activists, officials in several Asian countries (predominantly South Korea), military personnel and journalists."
"The goal of this effort seems to have been to monitor the contents of these users' e-mails, with the perpetrators apparently using stolen passwords to change peoples' forwarding and delegation settings," the company said. Changing the account settings without the users' knowledge would have let the perpetrators forward copies of all the messages in the account to their own system undetected.
The campaign "appears to originate from Jinan, China," Google said.
To tighten the security of its consumer e-mail accounts, Google introduced a new, two-factor verification system in February that it said would have provided users with a warning when their accounts were being accessed illicitly.