Google warns users of 'state-sponsored' hacks

Alerts Gmail users when it suspects government-backed account or malware attacks

Google began warning users today of its Gmail online email services when it suspects they may be targets of "state-sponsored" attacks.

It was the second time in the last two weeks that Google has deployed security-related alerts to a small fraction of those who use its services.

But the company was coy about how it knows whether a specific individual has been targeted by attacks paid for or designed by governments.

"You might ask how we know this activity is state-sponsored," said Eric Grosse, Google's vice president of security engineering, in a Tuesday blog. "We can't go into the details without giving away information that would be helpful to these bad actors."

The new warning states: "We believe state-sponsored attackers may be attempting to compromise your account or computer." It will appear at the top of the Gmail page if the user has logged in with his or her Google account. The message is not limited to those who use Google's own Chrome, but will pop up in any browser.

Grosse was equally vague about what might trigger the alert.

"It does not necessarily mean that your account has been hijacked. 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," he said.

But it seems Google knows, or thinks it knows, a state-sponsored attack when it sees one.

"Our detailed analysis -- as well as victim reports -- strongly suggest the involvement of states or groups that are state-sponsored," Grosse claimed.

Google is in a better position than most to know.

More than two years ago Google was one of several Western companies victimized by Chinese hackers -- a rumpus that led it to relocate its search servers to Hong Kong -- and the company has cleaned up several large-scale phishing and hacking campaigns directed against Gmail users, including one in 2011 that targeted senior U.S. government officials and another later that year that affected hundreds of thousands of Iranian users.

Google has displayed similar warnings before today's.

Two weeks ago, for example, Google began alerting users whose Windows PCs or Macs remain infected with the DNSChanger malware. Those users face the loss of their link to the Internet on July 9, when authorities switch off substitute DNS (domain name system) servers that took the place of criminal-controlled machines shut down last year.

In July 2011, Google also warned customers whose systems were infected with fake antivirus software, or "scareware." In that instance, Google became suspicious when it uncovered "unusual search traffic" while doing maintenance at one of its data centers.

Grosse did not explain what event, if any, sparked Google to roll out today's warning.

But sophisticated cyber-weapons believed to be state-backed have been in the news of late.

Last week, security researchers announced they had found a sophisticated espionage tool, which they called "Flame" (and in some cases, "Flamer"). Flame pilfered vast amounts of data from Middle Eastern computers, most of them located in either Iran or Palestine.

Some experts believe that because of its size and complexity, as well as the need to digest the huge amount of data is hoovers, Flame is probably state-sponsored.

And just last Friday, the New York Times reported that President Barack Obama had ordered cyberattacks against Iran -- using the Stuxnet worm -- in an attempt to disrupt or delay that nation's nuclear fuel enrichment program.

Gmail-specific warnings are also not new. Since March 2010, Google has notified Gmail users when it suspects account hacking attempts. Google triggers that alert in part on the Internet Protocol (IP) address of each successful log-on.

Google's state-sponsored warning includes a link to a page on Google's Help website, where the company hinted at why it issued the alert.

"It's likely that you received emails containing malicious attachments, links to malicious software downloads, or links to fake websites that are designed to steal your passwords or other personal information," the help page states.

That page also repeated some of what Grosse had written.

"It's important to note that Google's internal systems are not compromised and that this message does not refer to one specific campaign," the page read. "We routinely receive abuse reports from users, as well as from our internal systems that monitor for suspicious login attempts and other activity."

Google urged users who receive the warning to update their software, including their browsers, operating systems and browser plug-ins; ensure they're logging onto the legitimate Gmail website of; and use Gmail's two-factor authentication.

The latter sends a second password to the user's pre-defined phone number before allowing log-on.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is

See more by Gregg Keizer on

CAPTION: Google has begun putting this warning at the top of its Gmail page if it suspects that the user may have been targeted by what it called "state-sponsored" hackers.

Read more about cybercrime and hacking in Computerworld's Cybercrime and Hacking Topic Center.

Join the CSO newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.
Show Comments

Featured Whitepapers

Editor's Recommendations

Solution Centres

Stories by Gregg Keizer

Latest Videos

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Will your data protection strategy be enough when disaster strikes?

    Speakers: - Paul O’Connor, Engagement leader - Performance Audit Group, Victorian Auditor-General’s Office (VAGO) - Nigel Phair, Managing Director, Centre for Internet Safety - Joshua Stenhouse, Technical Evangelist, Zerto - Anthony Caruana, CSO MC & Moderator

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: The Human Factor - Your people are your biggest security weakness

    ​Speakers: David Lacey, Researcher and former CISO Royal Mail David Turner - Global Risk Management Expert Mark Guntrip - Group Manager, Email Protection, Proofpoint

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Current ransomware defences are failing – but machine learning can drive a more proactive solution

    Speakers • Ty Miller, Director, Threat Intelligence • Mark Gregory, Leader, Network Engineering Research Group, RMIT • Jeff Lanza, Retired FBI Agent (USA) • Andy Solterbeck, VP Asia Pacific, Cylance • David Braue, CSO MC/Moderator What to expect: ​Hear from industry experts on the local and global ransomware threat landscape. Explore a new approach to dealing with ransomware using machine-learning techniques and by thinking about the problem in a fundamentally different way. Apply techniques for gathering insight into ransomware behaviour and find out what elements must go into a truly effective ransomware defence. Get a first-hand look at how ransomware actually works in practice, and how machine-learning techniques can pick up on its activities long before your employees do.

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Get real about metadata to avoid a false sense of security

    Speakers: • Anthony Caruana – CSO MC and moderator • Ian Farquhar, Worldwide Virtual Security Team Lead, Gigamon • John Lindsay, Former CTO, iiNet • Skeeve Stevens, Futurist, Future Sumo • David Vaile - Vice chair of APF, Co-Convenor of the Cyberspace Law And Policy Community, UNSW Law Faculty This webinar covers: - A 101 on metadata - what it is and how to use it - Insight into a typical attack, what happens and what we would find when looking into the metadata - How to collect metadata, use this to detect attacks and get greater insight into how you can use this to protect your organisation - Learn how much raw data and metadata to retain and how long for - Get a reality check on how you're using your metadata and if this is enough to secure your organisation

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them Featuring: • John Baird, Director of Global Technology Production, Deutsche Bank • Samantha Macleod, GM Cyber Security, ME Bank • Sherrod DeGrippo, Director of Emerging Threats, Proofpoint (USA)

    Play Video

More videos

Blog Posts

Market Place