When Chinese hackers attacked Google in 2009, they may have gained access to years' worth of government surveillance records, The Washington Post reports. Google reported the hack publicly years ago, saying that the "sophisticated" attack resulted in the theft of Google intellectual property and the partial compromise of some human rights activists' email accounts. But according to anonymous government officials, hackers also compromised a database holding "thousands" of court orders requesting information about or access to specific Gmail accounts as part of law enforcement activities.
Many of these orders came from police departments, which routinely request email data for cases. But some were also issued under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), likely including classified National Security Letters, meant to be kept completely under wraps. According to officials, the goal was counter-espionage: figuring out who the US government was monitoring, in case it included any Chinese agents whose identity might have been discovered.
The extent of the compromise is not known. The Post writes that an FBI investigation did not uncover any evidence that the information had been used to hurt national security, and Google tightened its defenses in the aftermath. Recently, though, concerns have surfaced about renewed attacks backed by the Chinese military. Domestically, there's also been an ongoing debate over the effects of using court orders to monitor email or phone conversations, whether with or without a warrant. With the Obama Administration facing criticism for monitoring AP journalists, the news that these court orders may also fall into other hands adds a new dimension to the issue.