A vast cyber spy network controlled from China has infiltrated government and private computers in 103 countries, including those of Indian embassy in Washington and the Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama, a media report said on Sunday.
Canadian researchers, The New York Times reported, have concluded that the computers based almost exclusively in China are controlling the network and stealing documents, but stopped short of saying that the Chinese government was involved.
It quoted researchers as saying that they had found no evidence that the US government offices had been infiltrated, although a NATO computer was monitored by the spies for half a day and computers of the Indian embassy in Washington were infiltrated.
The researchers, who are based at the Munk Center for International Studies at the University of Toronto, had been asked by the office of the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan leader whom China regularly denounces, to examine its computers for signs of malicious software or malware, the paper said, quoting a report being issued shortly.
Their sleuthing, it said, opened a window into a broader operation that, in less than 2 years, has infiltrated at least 1,295 computers in 103 countries, including many belonging to embassies, foreign ministries and other government offices, as well as the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan exile centers in India, Brussels, London and New York.
The researchers, who have a record of detecting computer espionage, said they believed that in addition to the spying on the Dalai Lama, the system, which they called GhostNet, was focussed on the governments of South Asian and Southeast Asian countries, the paper reported.
It quoted intelligence analysts as saying that many governments, including those of China, Russia and the United States, and other parties use sophisticated computer programmes to covertly gather information.
The newly reported spying operation is by far the largest to come to light in terms of countries affected, the paper said. This is also believed to be the first time researchers have been able to expose the workings of a computer system used in an intrusion of this magnitude.
Still going strong, the operation continues to invade and monitor more than a dozen new computers a week, the paper said quoting the report — “Tracking ‘GhostNet’: Investigating a Cyber Espionage Network.”
Working with the Tibetans, the researchers found that specific correspondence had been stolen and that the intruders had gained control of the electronic mail server computers of the Dalai Lama’s organisation, the Times said.
The electronic spy game has had at least some real-world impact, the researchers were quoted as saying. For example, they said, after an e-mail invitation was sent by the Dalai’s office to a foreign diplomat, Chinese government made a call to the diplomat discouraging a visit.
Also, a woman working for a group making Internet contacts between Tibetan exiles and Chinese citizens was stopped by Chinese intelligence officers on her way back to Tibet, shown transcripts of her online conversations and warned to stop her political activities, the paper reported.
The Toronto researchers said they had notified international law enforcement agencies of the spying operation, which in their view exposed basic shortcomings in the legal structure of cyberspace. The FBI, the Times said, declined to comment on the operation.
Although the Canadian researchers said that most of the computers behind the spying were in China, the paper said, they cautioned against concluding that China’s government was involved. The spying could be a non-state, for-profit operation, for example, or one run by private citizens in China known as “patriotic hackers.”
“We’re a bit more careful about it, knowing the nuance of what happens in the subterranean realms,” Ronald J Deibert, a member of the research group and an associate professor of political science at Munk, was quoted as saying. “This could well be the CIA or the Russians. It’s a murky realm that we’re lifting the lid on.”
A spokesman for the Chinese Consulate in New York, the paper said, dismissed the idea that China was involved. “These are old stories and they are nonsense,” the spokesman, Wenqi Gao, said. “The Chinese government is opposed to and strictly forbids any cyber crime.”