It seems that information about these human rights activists was not retrieved, thank goodness, but such an attack has prompted Google to stop censoring search results in China, something they'd previously done at the request of the government. They're even talking about pulling out of China if they can't offer uncensored results. It's like they declared war on China, almost.
This incident bothers me. I don't like the idea of hacking into a place like Google - or anywhere, really - and stealing stuff, and I especially don't like the idea that someone is targeting human rights activists. There are many people in the world - especially in China, whose human rights violations are notorious - that need people to advocate for human rights. I can't imagine anyone sneaking to get that kind of information for good purposes, can you?
So who would do such a despicable thing? My money is on the Chinese government. Who else would want to surreptitiously gather intelligence about human rights activists there? Who else would have the technology to launch that kind of attack? Even if it isn't the government itself, whoever tried to get that information almost certainly has the backing of the government. For all the front they put up, China has done terrible things to some of its people.
Some say that these statements are a way for Google to pull out of China because they're not doing as well there as everywhere else. I guess there could be some merit to that, maybe... possibly... but that explanation doesn't feel like the whole truth to me. After all, even if Google is a distant second in search engines in China, they have market share there. Plus, the market there is ginormous, so even a relatively small amount of market share is still a large number of users. So abandoning the market because they don't have enough of it just doesn't make sense to me.
Plus, I believe Google's mission to do no evil. I see their statement as a way to be true to themselves and offer information to the people who want it. Censoring results is not something they wanted to do in the first place, but they did it because they had to. The fact that the attack originated in China says that the Chinese government isn't going to play by the rules, so why should Google continue to censor the world that the Chinese see?
I expect that Google will not be pulling completely out of China but will end up with some kind of compromise. I think that the result will depend in part on whether the companies that were also attacked come forward and stand up to China the way Google has. The more companies that talk about what happened, the stronger their collective position against China. If the US government actually steps in as well - which one might think they would, given that the attack went from China to the US - then perhaps Google and the other companies may have other options.
I have a sense that this could end up being an historic set of events when all is said and done. I hope that the end result is good for Google and the free world, and that it helps make the Chinese people freer and safe from attack.