Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, has described Google’s claim that Chinese hackers tried to break into hundreds of e-mail accounts as “very serious”, despite official Chinese denials.
Google says that it has uncovered a campaign run from inside China to monitor secretly the e-mails of senior US government figures, South Korean officials and other users of its Gmail service.
“These allegations are very serious,” Mrs Clinton said, adding that the US was “very concerned about Google’s announcement regarding a campaign that the company believes originated in China to collect the passwords of Google e-mail account holders”.
She said that the company had informed the State Department before making the news public.
But the US, which is seeking to improve relations with China across a range of areas, has not brought the issue up bilaterally with Beijing.
The White House, which said that President Barack Obama had been informed of the developments, added that it was not aware that any official US government accounts had been hacked into, although the US does not prohibit officials from using private e-mail accounts such as Gmail.
Reflecting the early stage of the investigation, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which is taking the lead in looking at the claims, said only that it was “working with Google to review this matter”. But Beijing responded angrily to Google’s statement. “Blaming these misdeeds on China is unacceptable,” said Hong Lei, a foreign ministry spokesman, at the ministry’s regular press conference.
Google’s claim that the attacks appeared to originate from Jinan is the most serious claim of China-based internet intrusion since a previous incident involving the company last year.
It came as Sony suffered an attack by hackers, and after a cyberattack on Lockheed Martin that is also being investigated by the FBI.
Google laid the blame for the latest security intrusions on 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.
The State Department said that the attempt on the Gmail accounts was not necessarily state-sponsored. It added that it was not aware that any State Department officials had been targeted, a comment echoed by the White House about its own employees.
In keeping with Beijing’s standard response to such accusations, Mr Hong said: “Hacking is an international problem and China is also a victim. The claims of so-called support for hacking are completely unfounded and have ulterior motives.”