The Chinese hackers involved in the Operation Aurora attacks revealed by Google in 2010 may have accessed top secret information on US surveillance targets in the country including suspected foreign spies and terrorists, it has emerged.
Speaking anonymously to the Washington Post, “US officials” familiar with the infamous data breach said that the hackers may have gained valuable intelligence by accessing a highly sensitive database detailing court orders authorising the surveillance.
Although they said it was unclear how much the attackers managed to find out, such info could theoretically help a foreign power identify which of their operatives were under investigation.
“Knowing that you were subjects of an investigation allows them to take steps to destroy information, get people out of the country,” one official told the DC-based paper.
The findings echo comments made by Dave Aucsmith, senior director of Microsoft's Institute for Advanced Technology in Governments, at a Washington conference last month.
He revealed that an attempt was also made to breach Redmond’s systems to find out which email accounts “we had lawful wiretap orders on”, according to CIO.
When Google revealed the Aurora breach back in January 2010, the first time a major company had named and shamed Chinese hackers for an attack, chief legal officer David Drummond claimed: “we have evidence to suggest that a primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists.”
The firm even used the attacks, which it was careful never to attribute to the Chinese government, as one of its reasons to largely shutter its China search business, moving its servers to neighbouring Hong Kong.
The Chocolate Factory is offering no comment on these new revelations but if accurate, they don’t reflect too well on the effectiveness of its information security defences at the time.
Former CIA officer and SANS guest editor Christopher Burgess argued that Google should at least have expected something like this to happen:
If the PRC learned that their officers or surrogates were being subjected to official US Government inquiry via review of the Google data stores, they could follow two paths: tone down and extract the individual, or light up and misdirect the US security services. A key point is that any service provider which is subject to lawful intercept inquiries by the US Government (in this case for counter-intelligence purposes) has had fair warning - you are the target of nation states' CI programs.