This could be the reason behind Google’s decision to stop censoring in China.

On January 7, Tenzin Seldon received a phone call from authorities in her university in Stanford, California. She was asked to immediately contact David Drummond, Google’s Chief Legal Officer, and was told her account had been infiltrated into by hackers based in China.

The cyber attack on Ms. Seldon, along with similar hacking attempts on several rights activists based in China, Europe and the United States, is believed to have been part of the reason behind Google’s unexpected decision last week to stop censoring its search-engine in China, and possibly close down its China operations.

In a statement on Wednesday, Mr. Drummond said “highly sophisticated” cyber attacks directed at Chinese activists based in the three regions had targeted his company, starting from mid-December. The hacking attempts are believed to be part of a broader cyber attack directed at more than 20 companies.

Ms. Seldon, a California-based Tibetan student activist, was one of those whose cases influenced Google’s decision. She told The Hindu in an interview that her student organisation had faced a number of attacks from China-based hackers in the past year, following the March 2008 riots in Tibet.

“Our websites and blogs were hacked into, and all our cell-phones were spammed continuously with text messages,” said Ms. Seldon, who was born in Dharamshala to Tibetan parents who moved to India. Many of the cyber attacks, she said, were traced to China-based hackers following an investigation last year by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Following Google’s announcement last week, a number of prominent activists based in Beijing have in recent days come forward detailing how they, too, faced routine cyber attacks.

Teng Biao, a Beijing-based activist and a law lecturer at the University of Politics and Law here, said this week he had discovered that all the emails in his Google Mail account had been forwarded to a third-party, without his knowledge. Mr. Teng said it was routine for activists in China to face monitoring from the authorities.

Denies link

There has been no evidence linking the cyber attacks to authorities in China, and the Chinese government last week strongly denied it had any involvement in the attacks.

The Chinese government has said that it will clamp down on any “illegal hacking activity.”

“Chinese laws do not permit any form of hacking activity,” said Jiang Yu, Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson. She said the Chinese government “encouraged the development of the Internet,” and foreign firms were welcome to seek out the Chinese market, as long as they operated “according to law.”

But other activists here suggest that the authorities were directly behind at least some of the attacks, given they have in the past monitored and restricted access to their websites and blogs.

Ai Weiwei, the prominent Chinese artist who designed Beijing’s Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium and has been an outspoken critic of the government, said his email account had been hacked into two months ago.

On Saturday, the United States said it would put in a formal request to Beijing to explain the cyber attacks, early next week. “It will express our concern for this incident and request information from China as to an explanation of how it happened, and what they plan to do about it,” State Department spokesperson P.J. Crowley said.

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