NYT: Google cyber attacks traced to Chinese schools

The cyber attacks against Google last year have been traced back to two Chinese schools, according to the New York Times.

The cyberattacks that prompted Google to challenge the Chinese government over its rules of censorship have been traced back to a Chinese University, as well as a vocational school with ties to the Chinese military, according to a New York Times report this week. (Techmeme)

Officials with both schools - Shanghai Jiaotong University and the Lanxiang Vocational School - said they were unaware that American officials had traced the hacking back to the schools but the NYT story was quick to point out that even though the attacks originated in China, that doesn't mean that the Chinese government, or any other Chinese source for that matter, launched the attacks.

Digging in deeper, investigators are looking into a specific computer science class taught by a Ukranain professor at the vocational school, which was established with military support and trains some computer scientists for the military. The Times reported that the school's computer network is operated by a company with ties to Chinese search engine and Google competitor Baidu.

As much as this might seem to be a breakthrough in the investigation, it also creates more uncertainty. From the Times story:

Within the computer security industry and the Obama administration, analysts differ over how to interpret the finding that the intrusions appear to come from schools instead of Chinese military installations or government agencies. Some analysts have privately circulated a document asserting that the vocational school is being used as camouflage for government operations. But other computer industry executives and former government officials said it was possible that the schools were cover for a “false flag” intelligence operation being run by a third country. Some have also speculated that the hacking could be a giant example of criminal industrial espionage, aimed at stealing intellectual property from American technology firms. Independent researchers who monitor Chinese information warfare caution that the Chinese have adopted a highly distributed approach to online espionage, making it almost impossible to prove where an attack originated.

A Chinese Military expert in Washington told the Times that the Chinese government often uses volunteer "patriotic hackers" to support its policies.

A professor at the University, who was not named, told the Times that students hacking into foreign web sites is "quite normal." He also said that it was also possible that one of the university's IP addresses was hijacked by someone else, also a common occurrence.

Previous coverage:

Google puts data security first; threatens China pullout, stops censoring results

Security expert: Chinese authorities supported cyber attacks

Assessing Google’s showdown with China: Does it make sense?

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