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The Informatica blog - Authored by Claudiu Popa

State-Sponsored Attacks Target Gmail Users: Should We Be Flustered or Flattered?

For most of us, the carousel of headlines breathlessly announcing – and denouncing - foreign government sponsorship of hacking is a distant, almost romantic notion. The idealistic motives behind the dissemination of malware (think StuxNet) and the brief time spent imagining the business of coordinating virtual world activity initiated in the real world offers little more than the occasional fleeting distraction. I dare say however that few things train the mind like the deadpan delivery of a serious warning pointed squarely at ourselves.

“We believe state-sponsored attackers may be attempting to compromise your account or computer. Protect yourself now.” The clear message was strategically composed and positioned so I couldn’t miss it when I logged into Gmail. I immediately noticed the lack of exclamation marks and thought that had they been included, they would have been superfluous. The desired effect was achieved.
State-Sponsored Security Attackers?  

My progression through the three states of ‘incredulity’, ‘concern’ and ‘flattery’ was fairly rapid but it turned out to be Google’s helpful – if vague – explanation that motivated me to finally settle on the latter.

It listed three basic ways to enhance the security of my account and pointed out that it is their duty to notify me so that I can protect myself.

Google’s Online Security Blog casually states “If you see this warning it does not necessarily mean that your account has been hijacked. It just means that we believe you may be a target” but what really did it for me was the paragraph that I include verbatim: “You might ask how we know this activity is state-sponsored. We can’t go into the details without giving away information that would be helpful to these bad actors, but our detailed analysis—as well as victim reports—strongly suggest the involvement of states or groups that are state-sponsored.”

They had me at “You might ask” and I immediately thought about how long it might have taken to settle on a dulcet phrase that poetically yet firmly makes the point. Not one to miss an opportunity, I interrogated Google’s own book search engine and saw that the popularity of this phrase has been on a fairly steady increase since the late 60’s. See for yourself and feel free to let it compete head-to-head against such alarmist alternatives as “listen here” and “look now, this is the way it is”.
nGram "You might ask" 
But I digress. The question of the hour is who might give a flying Wallenda about cracking my email account? Could it be China? Iran? Russia? Korea? Google remains mum on the particulars but given the definite nature of their statement, they clearly know something they don’t want to, or can’t share.
In which case I don’t think it would be particularly far-fetched to think that the warning may be hinting at a state sponsor much, much closer to home. Given current news events and Google’s own record of attempting to resist frivolous requests for user data such a scenario seems to be well within the realm of possibility.

The identity of the interested party notwithstanding, I would be lying if I pretended to not take some pleasure in thinking that some government somewhere has hired hackers or invested in malware just to show an interest in me. And what could be more flattering than that?
Sort Comments
Dennis Meharchand | 06/10/2013 08:31:46
Claudiu, Would seem that all state sponsored attackers would have a goal of compromising and controlling as many computers in a target country as possible - be it for cyber warfare or intellectual property theft for advantage in the Economic War underway. Then who best to target than those in cyber security with a likely list of highly valued email correspondents? If I received an email from You with an attachment I'd likely open it. Fortunately my computer systems are protected, with my Company technology, and I'm absolutely certain that any dropper that may be put on my computers would be gone on the next re-boot. Dennis Meharchand CEO, Valt.X Technologies

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