U.S. plans to issue official protest to China over attack on Google

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By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 16, 2010

The United States will issue an official protest to the Chinese government over a major espionage attack targeting Google's computer systems and rights activists' e-mail accounts that the search-engine giant said originated in China.

"We will be issuing a formal demarche to the Chinese government in Beijing on this issue in the coming days, probably early next week," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Friday.

The diplomatic message will "express our concern for this incident" and seek an explanation, he said. The move may signal a shift for an administration that has been reluctant, according to China experts, to press sensitive issues such as human rights, lest it offend a country whose cooperation it seeks in other areas.

On Tuesday, in a rare disclosure by a major firm, Google announced that its "corporate infrastructure" had been hacked and its intellectual property stolen. It said that the Gmail accounts of dozens of human rights activists in China, Europe and the United States were also penetrated and noted that other large companies were targeted, as well. Industry sources said 34 firms, including Google, were affected.

Google also said it will no longer filter Internet searches on its Chinese search engine, Google.cn. Although it did not directly accuse China, the Silicon Valley technology titan threatened to pull out of the country if the government does not allow it to operate uncensored. Chinese officials said that their laws ban hacking and that China's Internet is open, although they also defended a policy of keeping certain types of information off the Web in China.

The State Department's planned action coincides with a speech on Internet freedom that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is to deliver Thursday. She is expected to allude to the incident. "When she talks about this issue, China will be one of the countries she points to," an administration official said.

"You couldn't have picked a worse company to hack if you wanted to not irritate the Americans," said James A. Lewis, a cyber and national security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "They're their favorite child," he said of Google. The firm's chief executive advises President Obama on technology, and its Web applications are seen as the sort of innovation that will drive the new economy.

Officials said the administration has raised concerns about cybersecurity and Internet freedom with China before. But by formally protesting to the Chinese, the United States is elevating the issues to a new level, policy experts said. Richard N. Rosecrance, director of the Project on U.S.-China Relations at Harvard University, said, "I think this is the bottoming out of an extremely favorable policy toward China that might now begin to shift in another direction."

One analyst said Friday that he is not sure the attacks point to the Chinese government. Rob Knake, a cybersecurity expert with the Council on Foreign Relations, said his analysis of results from a technology firm investigating the attacks suggests that they "were not state-sponsored or the work of an elite, sophisticated group such as the Chinese military."

Nonetheless, said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, "Google has not only forced China's hand, they have forced the U.S.'s hand" on human rights.

"What Google has done," she said, "is make it easier for the administration to come out swinging on this issue."

Staff writer Ariana Eunjung Cha contributed to this report.


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