Google has announced, via their security blog, that they will now alert Gmail users if the company believes that a state-sanctioned cyber attack is being directed against them. Google explains that they believe it is their duty “to be proactive in notifying users about attacks or potential attacks so that they can take action to protect their information.” When suspicious activity arises, Google will notify users with a pink band at the top of the Gmail window that states: “We believe state-sponsored attackers may be attempting to compromise your account or computer. Protect yourself now.”
Although Google refused to say whether this change was directed at any countries in particular, news organizations have previously accused Chinese hackers of using these kind of attacks against the US and other foreign organizations. Additionally, this new alert closely followed a revision to Google’s Chinese search that informs users as to whether their search terms are likely to lead to filtering.
These new features represent the latest evolution in Google’s on-going struggle to provide service in China without becoming totally complicit in China’s censorship program. An example of their tête-à-tête includes when Google in 2010 redirected Chinese users to its Hong Kong site, “citing concerns over censorship and hacking.”
Other websites have taken different approaches in dealing with challenging content regulations. For example, in January, Twitter announced that they would withhold certain content in countries that request content restrictions, but it would publish such requests at Chilling Effects. In contrast, popular Chinese microblogging website, Sina Weibo, recently announced a new ‘credit system’ to punish users who post undesirable content. In Sina’s words:
Weibo Credit is a user credit system established by Sina Weibo to safeguard a good atmosphere within in the Weibo community. Its purpose is to purify the Weibo environment and safeguard good order on Weibo by relying on the reports of numerous users to effectively reduce untrue information, invasions of privacy, personal attacks, plagiarized content, the assuming of others’ identities and harassment of others.
Sina Weibo hopes that this step will help it avoid the kind of crackdown that occurred in the wake of the Bo Xilai scandal in March.
Google has been attempting to walk a difficult tightrope, moving from withdrawing from the Chinese market in early 2010, to going on a hiring spree in China in early 2012. Thanks to Google’s most recent features, users will have additional transparency about filtering and security. Combined with other resources for security and anonymity, hopefully Internet users in China and elsewhere will find themselves better equipped to browse safely.
Update: Title of this post was changed from “Google shifts policy toward state-sponsored intrusion.” The change was made in response to comments noting that “toward” could mean that Google supported state-sponsored attacks, rather than the intended meaning that Google changed its policy with respect to such attacks.