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Chinese hackers breach US officials' Gmail in 'act of war' cyber-attack

Senior US government officials, having declared cyber-attacks an 'act of war', were left floundering after a recent Gmail phishing attempt that originated in China.

In a carefully planned cyber-attack, hackers in China managed to snatch the Gmail login details of hundreds of US and South Korean officials, as well as some Chinese political activists.

The hackers sent out bait in an email worded to resemble one from a colleague. Strategically placed within the email was a link which, if the victim was foolish enough to click it, would take the the user to a malicious webpage and steal their account details.

Some of these dangerous messages didn't require the user to open a link -- they merely needed to open the email itself. After doing so, the user's mail would be directed to a third-party address without them knowing. Deeply sneaky.

Google says it "detected and disrupted" the hackers' attempts to steal further information, though it's thought that hundreds of accounts were compromised by the attack. Having originated in Jinan, China, the phish of blame is slapping the Chinese government in the face, and it's leaving a right old pong.

Our sister site CNET News explains it was not a security issue with Gmail itself that lead to the breach. Google hopes that by being open about the attack its users will take better care protecting their email account.

Tensions, already heating up between the US and China, are set to reach fever pitch after this recent attack. China isn't new to the hacking business, having already caused Google a very political headache.

"Surely they shouldn't be storing confidential or sensitive information in their webmail account?" said an incredulous Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant at security firm Sophos. "Users should always think about the data that they are storing in their web email, because if it's only protected by a username and password, it may actually be less secure than your regular work email system provides."

Last year, the search giant decided to stop censoring its search results, leading to a terrible ruckus with the Chinese government and Google eventually stopping all operations in the country.

So what happens now? The US has said that it will class any cyber-attack as an "act of war" that could provoke a real-life military response. Could we be looking at the first ever fully fledged cyber-war?