When Tenzin Seldon, a 20-year-old sophomore at Stanford, logged onto her Gmail account from New York over winter break, she may have helped Google understand the widespread penetration of its network by unidentified hackers in China.
Unknown to Seldon, a regional coordinator of Students for a Free Tibet, at the same moment she was reading her e-mail in Queens, someone in China was logged into her account as well. Top Google officials, including chief legal officer David Drummond, later told Seldon that the suspicious situation alerted them that she was one of the human rights activists whose electronic mail was routinely being spied upon by someone in China.
"That the long arm of Chinese security could reach all the way to my home here at Stanford is something I never would have suspected," said Seldon, the first activist targeted in the cyberattack to be identified. "It's very disturbing when your Gmail account, which is as personal as it gets, can be hacked into and breached."
Following the company's detection of widespread cyberspying on the Gmail accounts of human rights activists in the United States, China and Europe, Google said this week that it will consider closing its operations in China, unless the government stops forcing Google to censor its search engine.
While Google has acquiesced at filtering its search results on Google.cn, the attack on activists such as Seldon appears to have precipitated the company's bombshell declaration. According to Google officials, her black Hewlett-Packard laptop with the red Stanford "S" sticker on the outside was one of perhaps two machines Google examined for signs of malicious software, or "malware," that would have allowed cyberspies entry to her Gmail account.
Despite spending six days going through her laptop in early January, Google was unable to find any signs of malware on it. An industry source familiar with the case said her laptop may have been infected with a sophisticated form of malware programmed to harvest and relay back Gmail passwords, before erasing itself from her hard drive.
Seldon says she never remembers opening any suspicious e-mail attachments, and that she has never shared her password with anyone. Most recently, she has been involved with the case of Dhondup Wangchen, a Tibetan filmmaker who she said was imprisoned by the government after making a documentary about the frustration of Tibetans living under Chinese rule.
Seldon's parents were Tibetan farmers who fled to India about 1960 to remain close to the Dalai Lama, after China's annexation of Tibet. She grew up in India and attended high school in the Bay Area. Biking through campus with a black pony tail, a large backpack stuffed with her laptop and a red plastic water bottle, Seldon looked like a typical undergraduate Thursday, rather than an international activist. But she speaks four languages fluently and is among a very few members of the Tibetan exile community in India who have made it to Stanford.
"The fact that the Chinese government is intimidated by a 20-year-old is kind of sad," she said in a conversation on campus.
Underlying the gravity of the situation for Google, Marty Lev, the company's director of safety and security, showed up at her dorm to pick up her laptop. A Google spokesman confirmed Seldon's account of her conversations with Drummond and Lev.
She plans to go into politics later in life — perhaps in Tibet, perhaps in the United States. She said she is thrilled about the censorship stance Google is taking, because she believes the Chinese government will relent and allow Tibetans in China to see photos of the Dalai Lama on the Internet.
And Seldon plans to continue her activism.
"I'm a Tibetan person. If I don't speak on their behalf, who will?"
Contact Mike Swift at 408-271-3648. Follow him at Twitter.com/swiftstories.