Chinese hackers who breached Google gained access to sensitive data, U.S. officials say

Chinese hackers who breached Google’s servers several years ago gained access to a sensitive database with years’ worth of information about U.S. surveillance targets, according to current and former government officials.

The breach appears to have been aimed at unearthing the identities of Chinese intelligence operatives in the United States who may have been under surveillance by American law enforcement agencies.

It’s unclear how much the hackers were able to discover. But former U.S. officials familiar with the breach said the Chinese stood to gain valuable intelligence. The database included information about court orders authorizing surveillance — orders that could have signaled active espionage investigations into Chinese agents who maintained e-mail accounts through Google’s Gmail service.

Last month, a senior Microsoft official suggested that Chinese hackers had targeted the company’s servers about the same time that Google’s system was compromised. The official said Microsoft concluded that whoever was behind the breach was seeking to identify accounts that had been tagged for surveillance by U.S. national security and law enforcement agencies.

“What we found was the attackers were actually looking for the accounts that we had lawful wiretap orders on,” David W. Aucsmith, senior director of Microsoft’s Institute for Advanced Technology in Governments, said at a conference near Washington, according to a recording of his remarks.

“If you think about this, this is brilliant counterintelligence,” he said in the address, which was first reported by the online magazine CIO.com. “You have two choices: If you want to find out if your agents, if you will, have been discovered, you can try to break into the FBI to find out that way. Presumably that’s difficult. Or you can break into the people that the courts have served paper on and see if you can find it that way. That’s essentially what we think they were trolling for, at least in our case.”

Full article: Chinese hackers who breached Google gained access to sensitive data, U.S. officials say (Washington Post)

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