In mid-December 2009, engineers at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, began to suspect that hackers in China had obtained access to private Gmail accounts, including those used by Chinese human rights activists opposed to the government in Beijing.
Like a lot of large, well-known Internet companies, Google and its users were frequently targeted by cyber spies and criminals. But when the engineers looked more closely, they discovered that this was no ordinary hacking campaign.
In what Google would later describe as “a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China,” the thieves were able to get access to the password system that allowed Google’s users to sign in to many Google applications at once. This was some of the company’s most important intellectual property, considered among the “crown jewels” of its source code by its engineers. Google wanted concrete evidence of the break-in that it could share with U.S. law enforcement and intelligence authorities. So they traced the intrusion back to what they believed was its source — a server in Taiwan where data was sent after it was siphoned off Google’s systems, and that was presumably under the control of hackers in mainland China.