Why were Gmail users targeted in China hack?


7 Apr 2011
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Hackers' attack on US government officials' personal accounts rather than federal systems suggests they had inside information
Hackers based in China tried to break into hundreds of Gmail accounts, including those of senior US government officials. Photograph: Reuters

The attacks on the US government officials by China-based hackers targeted personal accounts, rather than trying to break into better-secured federal systems. Not only Google's Gmail was targeted; Yahoo accounts are also known to have been among those hit. It is not known whether any accounts on Microsoft's Hotmail system were hit.

It would be illegal for US government staff to use a personal email account for government work, partly because it would not fall under the Freedom of Information Act, which is meant to apply to all intra-government communication.

However, as Mila Parkour, the Washington-based IT specialist at the security specialists Contagio Malware Dump who first spotted this points out, the emails would have looked as though they were being forwarded, which would often mean being read "at home in a relaxed atmosphere, which helps to catch the victim off guard, especially if it appears to arrive from a frequent contact." She adds that "some people have a habit of forwarding messages from enterprise accounts to their personal mail for saving or easy reading at home, which may potentially offer some sensitive information."

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