The Gmail team recently introduced a new feature (in the footer) that enables account holders to verify the latest login activities on their account. I routinely check mine and the results are usually boring, reminding me I check my email way too often (and I do so mostly via browser, through my Canadian IP).
An unwelcome surprise
If you don’t check yours regularly, you should (my version of Google Apps doesn’t have this feature though). In fact, tonight during a routine check, I discovered an unwelcome surprise: an entry that didn’t belong. The following screenshot shows the recent activity on my account (with some information blanked out):
See that US, IMAP line? That wasn’t me. So did someone manage to access my account? Or was it a web application that I authorized? Before panicking, I decided to look into whatever information I could gather about that IP.
It turns out that it’s the IP of a server hosted by Slicehost (RackSpace), but I couldn’t find any website running on that IP address (220.127.116.11). To make things more interesting, I found two people (one German, one Japanese) complaining online about the same IP address and IMAP access to their Gmail accounts.
Was my account hacked into? I have a hard time believing that someone actually managed to login by guessing my password which was as secure as a password can be. I haven’t used my laptop on an unsecured WiFi. I use a Mac and am very cautious about what I install, so I doubt I have a keylogger installed or anything of that nature. Using 1Password I’m even immune to the so-called “tab napping” attacks.
Assuming that this is not a misunderstanding and some SaaS application I authorized is not in fact using that server to perform a legitimate action, I think it’s likely that someone managed to get in through a vulnerability or backdoor in one such application.
I’m not pointing fingers here, nor accusing anyone, but it is interesting to find such an occurence happening so shortly after granting the aforementioned authorizations. The websites I granted access to were:
Zoho Discussions (24 hours before the suspected intrusion happened)
Trendly (3 days before the intrusion)
Etacts (a few weeks before the intrusion)
It’s worth mentioning that in the past Etacts had scared the crap out of me with their American IP showing up in the recent activity list. However a lookup has always shown the questionable IP to belong to them.
Do any of these services intentionally use the server with IP 18.104.22.168? Since I’m not the only one who suspects a violation from this IP, it would be interesting to hear what Slicehost has to say about it? Perhaps they know if it’s a legitimate or illegitimate use of their server.
How to deal with an email intrusion
The perception of being intruded upon, whether it’s real or just a scare, is definitely not pleasant. Just in case the same happens to you, here is what I did to deal with the situation:
I verified that there were no messages sent on my behalf.
I checked that there weren’t any new filters that would forward emails to a possible malicious user.
I verified that there weren’t any forwards and ensured that forwarding was disabled.
POP3 was already disabled, and I have now disabled IMAP as well.
I revoked access to my Google account for all listed web applications.
I changed my password to another humongous one on a different computer, with a brand new installation of Linux, directly wired to my DSL modem (bypassing the whole wireless infrastructure I set up at home).
I will, soon enough, format my Mac (I’ve been planning a DBAN wipe, plus a brand new installation for a while either way).
I will continue to monitor my account activity.
This is the kind of information I felt necessary to share even if this turns out to be a false alarm. I highly suggest that you keep an eye on your Gmail account activity and if you find something suspicious, act accordingly.
Antonio Cangiano is a Software Developer and AI Evangelist at IBM. He authored Ruby on Rails for Microsoft Developers (Wrox, 2009) and Technical Blogging ( The Pragmatic Bookshelf, 2012, 2019). He is also the Marketing Lead for Cognitive Class, an educational initiative which he helped grow from zero to over 1 Million students. You can follow him on Twitter.