Faced with another threat to the personal information that Google is asking us to entrust to its burgeoning cloud, the company has again indulged a reliable formula for changing the subject: Ratcheting up fear of China.
Not for the first time, Google finds itself having to explain how cyber-predators have managed to hack into Gmail accounts, enticing unsuspecting users to give up their passwords through the process known as phishing, then sifting through their emails. The targets include senior U.S. officials, including a Cabinet member, the Washington Post reports.
For anyone who owns a computer and uses a Google product (which is to say pretty much anyone with electricity and a pulse), this is troubling news. The spread of so-called cloud computing -- in which our files reside not on hard drives on our computers, but on the giant servers of the Internet -- involves a considerable leap of faith. We must trust that the people holding our data are able to protect it against myriad dark forces intent on stealing it. The latest attacks on Gmail undermine that faith, delivering an unsettling message: The threats appear to be multiplying. Even the most sophisticated technology companies cannot guarantee safety.
Indeed, this message gained additional reinforcement on Thursday, as hackers claimed to have once again infiltrated a network run by Sony, reportedly tapping customer information from some 1 million accounts.
This is not a message that Google's formidable public relations apparatus would like to see gaining currency in the public eye. Much like politicians who lean on slave-wage Chinese workers as the supposed explanation for their inability to improve the lot of the American middle class, Google is playing the China card.
In an elliptical statement that generates more questions than it answers, Google declares that the campaign of attacks "appears to originate from Jinan, China" -- coincidentally enough, a city that is home to one of a handful of military command centers in the world's most populous country.
China is no doubt home to many a hacker. The state, still ruled by a lone party that is obsessed with how to keep it that way, is deeply invested in cyber-mischief. That makes it entirely plausible that Chinese hackers, perhaps affiliated with the military, have invested time and resources in forging a path to the inboxes of influential American officials.
That said, notice how quickly Google has managed to divert us from the central issue highlighted by its latest brush with hackerdom: the security of our personal information. Let us not ponder the growing evidence that data is insecure in a connected and digital world -- more than a tiny problem for Google's business model and the long-term health of its brand. Let us instead avail ourselves of the opportunity to get angry with China, and fearful of its threat to our way of life.
This is brilliant crisis management at work. Just like that, Google has managed to transform itself from a cloud computing giant with an operational and public relations problem into a victim of Commie-engineered spycraft, valiantly facing off against a totalitarian state.
The Obama administration helped advance that narrative on Thursday, as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton declared that the F.B.I. would probe the alleged Chinese hacks of Gmail accounts.
“We are obviously very concerned about Google’s announcement,” Mrs. Clinton said, according to The New York Times. “These allegations are very serious, we take them seriously, we’re looking into them.”
Google declined to discuss whether it is using China fears to shift the conversation away from the sanctity of its customers' data. But the company said it is intent on providing ample protection, recommending that its users employ countermeasures, such as upping the security features of their accounts.
"We're focused on protecting users and making sure everyone knows how to stay safe on line," spokesman Jay Nancarrow said.
The company refused to spell out how it knows that the latest attacks appear to come from China, or why it opted to disclose their supposed provenance.
Google has been here before, playing the China card just as perfectly. Early last year, Google servers were hacked in attacks traced by investigators to Jiaotong University, an elite institution in Shanghai. Soon thereafter, Google turned off its mainland Chinese search engine, a site that it had been censoring in accordance with Beijing's dictates against discussion of sensitive topics such as Chinese control of Tibet and relations with Taiwan. Google cast that decision as a principled stand against censorship. Google's co-founder, Sergey Brin, reflected publicly on his childhood in the Soviet Union, which he said made him particularly reluctant to participate in curbs on freedom of speech. "It touches me more than other people having been born in a country that was totalitarian and having seen that for the first few years of my life," he said.
What did the hacks into Google's servers have to do with state-enforced censorship? Nothing. Indeed, Google had submitted to Chinese censorship for years, in a straightforward reach for market share, rendering dubious its sudden principled revulsion against curbs on the free flow of information. But this sidestep worked brilliantly: Google managed to turn the conversation away from legitimate questions about the security of its servers and on to a running dialogue about China's systematic repression. In place of talk that Google had left itself vulnerable to being hacked came celebration of its courageous stand against Beijing's might.
"God bless Google," said Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), a longtime China critic. "They have been willing to speak out."
Then as now, Hillary Clinton assumed a starring role. "In an interconnected world, an attack on one nation's networks can be an attack on all," she told reporters. "Countries or individuals that engage in cyber attacks should face consequences and international condemnation."
This time, the attack comes via a phishing campaign, a problem that confronts every company with an online presence. As Google emphasized, phishing attacks are in no way exclusive to Gmail.
True enough, but for Google the stakes hanging in the balance are special. Perhaps more than any consumer brand, Google has staked its future on cloud computing, which means it has bet that the pirates can be kept at bay. Any evidence to the contrary is uniquely damaging to the search giant.
Google is seeking to be the uber-cloud, the central repository for damn near everything. It is building an increasingly sophisticated record of our online browsing through its Chrome browser. Through Gmail, the company is amassing a rich archive of interpersonal and business history, the emails and contact information stored by tens of millions of people. Google's Picasa photo archiving system now holds documentary remnants of no end of pivotal moments -- aisles walked down by married couples, first steps taken by babies, last rites conveyed on departed relatives and compromising poses struck by ex-lovers.
More recently, Google has asked us to hand over our music libraries, via the launch of Music Beta, as it arms itself to compete again cloud-based music offerings from Apple and Amazon. Google knows our calendars, our spontaneous purchases, our proclivities and our vices.
And far from a giant electronic attic full of memories and trifles, Google is increasingly intent on serving as the warehouse for commercial items, offering its cloud-based word processing and email services as alternatives to hard drive-based varieties of software. Google has designs on government data and commercial transactions. It seeks to be the storage house for vital secrets.
All of which makes the China card seem like a handy diversion from a conversation that could determine the nature of cloud computing, its sustainability and who gets the spoils.
Who cares whether the cyber-threat lurks in China, Russia, or in the person of the disaffected youth down the block? The real question is whether data is safe in a connected age in which people in China enjoy the same proximity to your inbox as your neighbor's kid. And that's a question that will not be answered by ginning up fears of faraway spies.