CYBERWARFARE: GOOGLE’S RESPONSE TO CHINA’S ATTACK

Note: If you find my posts too long or too dense to read on occasion, please just read the bolded portions. They present the key points I’m making and the most important information I’m sharing.

This is my fifth post on computer hacking and cyberwarfare, all of which are part of my overview of New York Times cybersecurity reporter Nicole Perlroth’s outstanding book, This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends. [1] My first post summarized the book’s information on the scale of computer hacking, cybercrime, and cyberwarfare; the 2017 worldwide ransomware attack by North Korea; and the 2009 cyberwarfare attack by the NSA on Iran’s uranium enrichment plant. My second post provided an overview of the book’s reporting on leaks from the NSA, electronic surveillance in the U.S., and the use of encryption to protect privacy. My third post described Russia’s cyberattacks on Ukraine and the fourth post  described China’s cyberattack on Google.

Google had begun doing business in China in 2006, agreeing to the censorship of search results that the government demanded. In 2009, it was still struggling to accommodate China’s increasingly draconian censorship rules. Nonetheless, China waged a cyberattack on Google in 2009 in an effort to make Google an unwitting accomplice in Chinese surveillance of dissidents. (See my previous post for more details about this cyberattack.)

In response, on January 12, 2010, Google publicly revealed the Chinese cyberattack and its decision to pull out of China, despite its being the largest and most sought-after market in the world. Fearing for its employees’ safety, it had briefed the State Department and the U.S. embassy in Beijing was prepared to undertake a mass evacuation of Google’s Chinese employees and their families. Google shut down its Chinese operation and routed all Chinese Internet traffic to Hong Kong. In response, the Chinese government scrambled to censor and block Internet content flowing from Hong Kong, lambasted Google, denied involvement in the cyberattack, and accused the U.S. government of conducting an anti-China propaganda campaign. It permanently blocked Internet access to Google and three years later, under new President Xi Jinping, took over total control of the Internet in China.

The Chinese hackers who had executed the attack, having been outed, unplugged their Internet computer servers and abandoned their hacking tools. They abstained from hacking in the U.S. for a number months, but one year later engaged in a sophisticated attack on RSA, the cybersecurity company that sold security services to, among others, high profile defense contractors. Based on this successful attack, the Chinese hackers were able to infiltrate Lockheed Martin and thousands of other western companies including banks, automakers, chemical companies, law firms, non-profit organizations, and more. They stole billions of dollars-worth of proprietary information, including military and trade secrets.

Back at Google, less than a year after the 2010 pullout, some executives began pushing to go back to doing business in China. As Google diversified its businesses and re-organized under the over-arching corporation Alphabet in 2015, re-entry into the Chinese market, with its 750 million Internet users, became a hot topic of debate. Ultimately, human rights, ethical considerations, and Google’s motto of “Don’t be evil” were overwhelmed by a focus on profits.

In 2016, Google established a new, artificial intelligence research center in Beijing and released some small-scale products, e.g., an app and a mobile game, into the Chinese market. Simultaneously, it was working on a search engine for the Chinese market, code-named Dragonfly, that met government censorship requirements. In August 2018, an employee leaked information about the work on Dragonfly. After protests by Google employees and others, the Dragonfly project was terminated in July 2019. Google does not offer a search engine in China at this time.

Google’s business ethics have been questioned not just for doing business in China, but for its behavior in the U.S. and elsewhere. It profits off sites that spread disinformation and conspiracy theories, and its YouTube subsidiary allows the spread of videos that harm the well-being of children. In Saudi Arabia, it hosted an app that allowed men to track and, thereby, control the movements of female family members.

In subsequent posts, I will outline the Perlroth book’s reporting on:

  • The cyberattacks on U.S. elections and the Trump administration’s response, and
  • What can be done to counter cybercrime and warfare at the individual and governmental levels.

[1]      Perlroth, N. This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends. Bloomsbury Publishing, NY, NY. 2021.

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