When alleged Chinese hackers infiltrated Google's internal systems in December, they lifted source code for a password system that controls access to almost all of the company's web services, according to a report citing a person with direct knowledge of Google's investigation into the matter.
The New York Times reports that the December attack nabbed code for the system that controls single-sign-on for millions of users across myriad Google services, including Gmail and the company's online business applications. Originally codenamed Gaia - a nod to the Greek godess of the earth - it is now known simply as Single Sign-On.
According to The Times, the attack began when an instant message was sent to a Google employee in China who was running Microsoft's Messenger client. When the employee clicked on a weblink in the IM, attackers gained access to the employee's PC, and from there, they tapped machines used by "a critical group of software developers" at the company's Mountain View headquarters. Eventually, they also gained access to a software repository where source code for the Gaia system was stored.
Code was moved to machines housed by the Texas-based webhost Rackspace, The Times says, before it was transferred to some other, unknown destination.
At some point, according to The Times, the attackers gained access to an internal Google directory called Moma, which houses info on the "work activities" of company employees. This may have been used to locate specific individuals inside the company. The attackers "seemed to have precise intelligence" about the names of the Gaia software developers.
However, The Times says, the attackers "do not appear" to have lifted the passwords of individual Gmail users.
On January 12, Google told the world that Chinese hackers had stolen unspecified intellectual property from the company's internal system, and it said evidence indicated that "a primary motive" of the attacks was to gain access to the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. In light of the attack - and what it described as other, routine attacks on the Gmail accounts of such activists - Google said it had resolved to stop censoring search results in the country.
A little more than two months later, after talks with Chinese government, Google shut down its Chinese search engine, Google.cn, and redirected visitors to its Hong Kong-based engine, Google.com.hk, where it now provides uncensored search results in simplified Chinese.
According to The Times, Google continues to use the Gaia system, and the paper questions whether the attackers may use the course code to locate security weaknesses n the system itself. ®