Google cyber-complaint is tip of iceberg
Google’s cyber-complaint is the tip of an iceberg. Coordinated attacks on IT systems are common, yet companies and governments have kept largely silent. The growth of computer services that rely heavily on the Internet means the stakes are growing higher. That may explain why Google spoke up about recent attempts to steal its intellectual property — and why the U.S. State Department has also taken China to task.
The scope of the recent attacks points to a complex operation. More than 30 companies were attacked simultaneously through an undiscovered software security hole. The incursions appear to have had the blessing of the Chinese government, if not its direct involvement. It is hard to imagine who else would be interested in the email accounts of political dissidents, which Google claims were targeted.
The concerted assault also bears similarities to one on 100 companies last year, according to security experts at iDefense. So it shouldn’t be dismissed as a one-off or rogue operation.
The amount of information and money at risk from such attacks is growing. An increasing percentage of many companies’ value comprises patents and trade secrets. The theft of physical goods is rarely life-threatening for their manufacturer. A software company, on the other hand, can be destroyed if its secret sauce is stolen.
Microsoft, for instance, has persistently complained about piracy of its software in China and elsewhere. But Google has gone a step further, squawking about a security breach that makes it look vulnerable. Other companies, and governments, have mostly kept quiet about this kind of trouble.
That may change, because Google’s problem is rapidly becoming everybody’s. The growth of cloud computing — where services such as email, spreadsheets and word processing are served online — increases the vulnerability of companies and governments to Internet-based attacks. Hillary Clinton’s State Department appears to be backing up Google’s complaint.
Western governments are heavily involved behind the scenes with tackling gaps in Internet security. But cyber-attacks that appear to be state-sponsored arguably call for a more public response as well. Clinton’s decision to point a finger openly at the Chinese government could just be the beginning.