The Cable

Google to warn users targeted by state-sponsored attacks

UPDATE: A senior Senate aide confirmed that this evening he received a warning on his Gmail account that Google suspected he had been the target of a state-sponsored cyber attack.

Web giant Google is about to announce a new warning informing Gmail users when a specific type of attacker is trying to hijack their accounts -- governments and their proxies.

Later today, the company will announce a new warning system that will alert Gmail users when Google believes their accounts are being targeted by state-sponsored attacks. The new system isn't a response to a specific event or directed at any one country, but is part and parcel of Google's recent set of policy changes meant to allow users to protect themselves from malicious activity brought on by state actors. It also has the effect of making it more difficult for authoritarian regimes to target political and social activists by hacking their private communications.

"We are constantly on the lookout for malicious activity on our systems, in particular attempts by third parties to log into users' accounts unauthorized. When we have specific intelligence-either directly from users or from our own monitoring efforts-we show clear warning signs and put in place extra roadblocks to thwart these bad actors," reads a note to users by Eric Grosse, Google's vice president for security engineering, to be posted later today on Google's Online Security blog, obtained in advance by The Cable. "Today, we're taking that a step further for a subset of our users, who we believe may be the target of state-sponsored attacks." 

When Google's internal systems monitoring suspicious internet activity, such as suspicious log-in attempts, conclude that such activities include the involvement of states or state-backed initiatives, the user will now receive the specialized, more prominent warning pictured above. The warning doesn't necessarily mean that a user's account has been hijacked, but is meant to alert users that Google believes a state sponsored attack has been attempted so they can increase their security vigilance.

Google wants to be clear they are not singling out any one government for criticism and that the effort is about giving users transparency about what is going on with their accounts, not about highlighting the malicious actions of foreign states.

"If you see this warning 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," Grosse writes. "You might ask how we know this activity is state-sponsored. We can't go into the details without giving away information that would be helpful to these bad actors, but our detailed analysis-as well as victim reports-strongly suggest the involvement of states or groups that are state-sponsored."

Google insiders told The Cable that Google will not be giving out information on which governments it sees as the most egregious violators of web privacy.  For Google, the new initiative is not an effort against governments but a way to help its users help defend and protect themselves.

Users who click through the new warning message will be directed to a page that outlines commonly seen security threats and suggests ways users can immediately raise their level of security on Gmail.

"We're constantly working to prevent harmful activity on our services, especially attempts to compromise our users' information," the insider said. "The primary message is: we believe that you're a target so you should take immediate steps to protect your account." 

The new announcement comes only days after the company said they would alert users in mainland China when they use search terms that are likely to be censored by the Chinese government. According to another of Google's official blogs, that move was meant to improve the search experience for Chinese users by allowing them to avoid terms that would result in stalls or breaks in their search experience due to government filters.

For example, Google said that Chinese users searching the character for "river," which is "jiang" in Chinese, causes technical problems. The same character is also used in the search for former Chinese President Jiang Zemin.

Google didn't specifically mention Chinese censorship in its notice about Chinese search terms, apparently in an effort not to antagonize the Chinese government any more than necessary. Google and Beijing have been at odds since 2010, when the company announced it would no longer censor search terms on the Google.cn and moved the bulk of its Chinese operations to Hong Kong.

That move followed a series of Gmail attacks in 2010, directed at Chinese human rights activists, which were widely suspected to be linked to the Chinese government. Following those attacks, the government-controlled People's Daily publicly accused Google of being an agent for U.S. intelligence agencies.

While last week's announcement and this week's announcement are both being presented by Google as user based initiatives not directed at foreign governments, Google CEO Eric Schmidt has been speaking out publicly and forcefully in recent months about the potential negative role governments can play in circumventing internet freedom.

"While threats come from individuals and even groups of people, the biggest problem will be activities stemming from nations that seek to do harm," he said in London last month.

The Cable

U.S. expands its 'trilateral diplomacy' in Singapore

Singapore - The Obama administration is all about setting up new, smallish multilateral structures composed of allies, especially when it comes to Asia, and that effort was on full display here in Singapore this weekend with two trilateral meetings on the sidelines of the 2012 IISS Shangri-la Security Dialogue.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and his team including Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey and PACOM Commander Adm. Samuel Locklear sat down Saturday afternoon first with top level delegations from Japan and South Korea, and then Japan and Australia. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs Mark Lippert, his principal deputy Peter Lavoy, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Vikram Singh also participated in both trilateral sessions.

On the allied side of the equation, Japan was represented by Parliamentary Senior Vice Minister of Defense Shu Watanabe and the South Korean team was led by Minister of Defense Kim Kwan-Jin. Minister of Defense Stephen Smith led the Australian team in the second meeting. Japanese Defense Minister Naoki Tanaka was supposed to come to Singapore but pulled out at the last minute due to an impending cabinet reshuffle that might see him lose that post.

Multiple officials inside the first meeting said it focused almost exclusive on the issue of North Korea's nuclear program and Pyongyang's provocative actions in the region, including the recent failed missile test in April.

"The three ministers concurred that North Korea's continued provocations including its sinking of the ROK corvette CHEONAN and shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010, and its missile launch in April 2012, pose a serious threat to the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula, Northeast Asia, and the world," read a Pentagon readout of the session. "North Korea needs to understand that it will achieve nothing by threats or by provocations, and that such behavior will only deepen its international isolation."

A big part of the meeting was to establish the trilateral dialogue as a formalized structure that will endure.

"The three ministers affirmed the importance of trilateral collaboration for regional peace and stability, and they decided to expand the scope of this collaboration that includes humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, maritime security, protecting the freedom of navigation, and non-proliferation," the readout said. "They also decided to pursue Defense Ministerial trilateral meetings at the Shangri-La Dialogue in the future."

The U.S. is also using the trilaterals to encourage its allies to make progress on their relations with each other. Officials said the U.S. is pushing Japan and South Korea to sign their long delayed agreement on information sharing, which the U.S. believes would help all three countries work together on sensitive security issues.

The logistics of a trilateral meeting are complicated and that was on display in Singapore as well. The Cable overheard a dispute between the U.S. and Korean delegations over how the translations in the trilateral session would be conducted.

The U.S. side wanted the interpreters to translate simultaneously, so that the 45-minute meeting could cover more ground. The Koreans wanted to the translations to come sequentially, so that everybody in the room would have the best chance to hear and understand the other parties before responding. Eventually a compromise was reach that one official termed "semi-simultaneous" translation.

There was also an extensive discussion about how to conduct the handshake for the official photo, which resulted in the "six hands in" model pictured above.

The U.S.-Japan-Australia meeting was more preliminary, because those three countries have less experience dealing with each other and because Japan and Australia don't have a formalized alliance relationship yet that includes robust defense cooperation. But that's part of what the meeting was organized to correct.

"Defense Ministers of Australia and Japan and the United States Secretary of Defense will develop and implement an action plan that promotes a strong, dynamic and flexible trilateral defense relationship over the remainder of this decade to enhance the security and prosperity of the region," the readout of that meeting said.

There may not have been any startling announcements of new policies or projects to come from the meeting, but the increased focus on trilateral structures such as these are meant to show solidarity amongst allies and prevent efforts by competitors and adversaries to divide the U.S. from like-minded regional powers.  

As one U.S. official told The Cable, "The meeting is the message."

JIM WATSON/AFP/GettyImage