Washington scrambled on Thursday to assess whether security had been compromised after Google Inc revealed a major hacker attack targeting US officials that the Internet giant said came from China.
“These allegations are very serious,” US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said.
“We take them seriously, we’re looking into them,” Clinton told reporters a day after the Internet giant said it had disrupted a campaign aimed at stealing the passwords of hundreds of Google e-mail account holders, including senior US government officials, Chinese activists and journalists.
Google’s announcement fuels debate in Washington over China’s intentions in cyberspace, which the US has identified as a potential flashpoint for future conflict.
Neither Google nor the US government has said the Chinese government was behind the attacks and the US State Department said it had not raised the issue with Beijing.
Google said only that the attack appeared to originate in China.
Beijing reacted angrily to Google’s charge, saying it was “unacceptable” to blame Beijing and said allegations that China supports hacking “have ulterior motives.”
Clinton said Google told the State Department before it made its public announcement on Wednesday and the FBI was investigating the matter.
The White House said it had no reason to believe official government e-mails were hacked in the Google incident, and officials at many agencies stressed that government employees were directed not to use private accounts to discuss sensitive issues.
“Rule number one is don’t do anything stupid,” one national security official said.
Some US government agencies, including the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, block employees from accessing personal accounts from work, but there is no blanket ban and other agencies do allow it.
The government will check whether senior officials’ private accounts were targeted, officials said.
“I don’t believe we’re aware that anyone was affected in this building,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said. “We’ll continue to look into the possibility that some individuals here may have been affected.”
Some analysts said the hacking incident could make the federal government nervous about extending contracts to Google, even though those e-mail and communication services come with a higher degree of security than the e-mail services that were compromised. Google is competing heavily with Microsoft Corp in that space.
“I would think this is a negative for Google,” said Tavis McCourt, an analyst from Morgan Keegan.
Google’s latest salvo looked likely to bring Internet policy to the foreground in the US-China relationship, where Washington and Beijing have staked out sharply contrasting approaches to censorship, freedom of speech and cyber security.
The US was drawn in last year when Google temporarily shut its Chinese-language portal over censorship concerns and a cyber attack it said was traced to China. Clinton has also accused Beijing of facing a “dictator’s dilemma” as it seeks to control technologies that are fueling growth and free speech around the world.
The dispute over the Internet has at times amplified existing strains in the US-China relationship on everything from human rights and trade to intellectual property rights.