Google Inc. (GOOG:US) said it has started sending warnings to users of its e-mail service who may have been targeted by state-sponsored cyber-attacks.
Gmail users whose accounts are suspected of being the target of such a hacking effort will receive a message stating, “We believe state-sponsored attackers may be attempting to compromise your account or computer,” Mountain View, California-based Google said on a company blog.
“If you see this warning it does not necessarily mean that your account has been hijacked,” Google said. “It just means that we believe you may be a target, of phishing or malware for example, and that you should take immediate steps to secure your account.” Phishers try to obtain confidential information, while malware disrupts files or computing operations.
The alerts are directed at specific Gmail users, some of whom can be identified by the company’s algorithms. Google also collects reports from hacking victims and receives other, unspecified intelligence regarding targets of espionage attempts. Google has used notifications in the past to inform users of malicious “botnet” software on machines, without specifying the suspected origin.
The messages are a sign of the vast amount of data about cyberattacks that Google collects as the operator of the world’s biggest search engine and one of the biggest e-mail services. Gmail has more than 350 million active users, according to a company spokesman, Jay Nancarrow.
The warnings are also an acknowledgement that while Google already alerts users to suspected fraudulent activity on many websites and in certain e-mails, there are limitations on its ability to block cyber-assaults.
Sophisticated attacks often take the form of personalized e-mails that aren’t caught by spam filters. The hackers often try to plant malicious software, or malware, on users’ machines to steal account passwords and other data. Targets of state- sponsored attacks can include government officials, dissidents, human-rights activists and corporate executives.
U.S. officials often cite China as a source of international attacks. Other countries are implicated as well. A report last week in the New York Times cited the U.S. and Israel as being behind the Stuxnet computer-worm attack that damaged centrifuges in an Iranian nuclear facility in 2010.
Nancarrow, the Google spokesman, declined to comment on how Google determines whether an attack is likely to have been state-sponsored.
Google said in January 2010 that the company itself was the target of “highly sophisticated” intrusions that originated in China, home to the world’s largest Internet market. Google also warned last year of an attempt to steal passwords from Gmail users, which Google said may have also originated in China.
China has denied hacking allegations and has said it too is a victim of hacking.
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