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A network failure causes Gmail's service to lose over 150,000 accounts

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March 1st, 2011

A little over 150,000 Gmail users have been bracing themselves for the scary scenario of losing more than ten long years of email correspondance and storage during the past 36 hours. At around 3.00 PM ET Sunday, Google began investigating reports of some email issues with its service.

A few hours later, Google confirmed that a little over 150,000 of its Gmail users were experiencing service disruptions of one kind or another.

Google says that less than 0.09 percent of its user base was affected. But for a service with an estimated 194 million users, those numbers add up pretty fast. And those affected are understandably not too happy with the treatment.

"I logged in today and my account looks like a brand-new Gmail account! More than ten years of emails (17,400 of them) are all gone," one user wrote on Google's help forum.

"This happened to me this morning. Everything from six years ALL gone! Contact list is fine, but all communications have been deleted," another Gmail user wrote.

A Gmail employee said in the help forum that Google's technicians are working to resurrect users' full access. Google's status dashboard carried a similar message.

"We are fixing the issue. We have restored about 32.4 percent of users and are in the process of fixing the balance," a Google spokesman said late yesterday. "Everything should be back to normal in about 18 hours. It is our expectation that everything will be fully restored. We hope."

He added that Google has reduced its estimate of the percentage of Gmail users affected to 0.02 percent. But nevertheless, that still translates to around 39,000 Gmail users.

Those Gmail users are still stuck hoping that Google really can rescue all their data. Some observers are not so optimistic, however. "What if Google fails?" one wondered in the help forum. "If, ultimately, Google does not make this right in a timely fashion and I lose the main record of the last seven years of my life that will forever affect how I view trusting an anonymous server farm somewhere with my critical or even not-so-critical data."

The news comes just a few weeks after a Flickr staff member accidentally deleted a user's five-year old account, wiping out more than 4,100 photos. Although the account was restored to a certain degree, the moral of the story was clear: It's always good to back up information!

Google offers a set of directions to help users back up their e-mails. The five-step process helps users to configure another mail client that will download duplicate copies of Gmail messages.

As of this morning, Google still is investigating on the potential reasons that caused its email system to fail, and said it will post the results of its findings in its user help forum when they are known.

In January 2005, wrongly formatted Gmail addresses have been found to enable access to emails sent by other users on Google's network. A problem with Google's email service, Gmail, let any user query the company's servers for information on the last message sent, two programmers announced on Wednesday.

The programmers, part of a community site dedicated to the Unix-like FreeBSD operating system, found that an improperly formatted address allowed Gmail users to retrieve the message body of the last HTML-formatted email processed by the server.

"The result is a compromise of the privacy of communications over Gmail," the two programmers stated in their write-up of the problem. "Message content and address information are easily -- if somewhat randomly -- available to unintended recipients."

Google acknowledged the problem on Wednesday and said it had been fixed. It is unclear how long the glitch lasted.

The problem became apparent when an email message sent by the programmers left off a ">" from the end of a recipient's address. The result: Google's server sent back seemingly random information that the hackers realised was information from someone else's email message.

Google acknowledged the problem and had fixed it by the end of the day, a source at the company said on Wednesday. Since the problem originated in the application on the company's servers, the fix immediately plugged the leak for all users, the source said.

The search giant has increasingly had to deal with security flaws because its popularity has security researchers looking more closely at the firm's products.

Worms have used Google's search engine to find potentially vulnerable hosts on the Internet, and flaws in the company's desktop search program left computers that ran the software open to attack.

Google's free email service, Gmail, was launched last April and has quickly gained a large following. While the system is technically still in beta, many users have begun to rely on it.

However, because most of Google's services run on the company's own servers rather than on software installed on users' systems, fixes for security problems can be deployed quickly.

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Source: Google.

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