Vast Spy System Loots Computers in 103 Countries
A vast electronic spying operation has infiltrated computers and has stolen documents from hundreds of government and private offices around the world, including those of the Dalai Lama, Canadian researchers have concluded
In a report to be issued this weekend, the researchers said that the system was being controlled from computers based almost exclusively in China, but that they could not say conclusively that the Chinese government was involved.
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.
Their sleuthing opened a window into a broader operation that, in less than two 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 Lamas 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 focused on the governments of South Asian and Southeast Asian countries.
Intelligence analysts say many governments, including those of China, Russia and the United States, and other parties use sophisticated computer programs to covertly gather information.
The newly reported spying operation is by far the largest to come to light in terms of countries affected.
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 researchers said in their report, Tracking GhostNet: Investigating a Cyber Espionage Network. They said they had found no evidence that United States 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 malware is remarkable both for its sweep in computer jargon, it has not been merely phishing for random consumers information, but whaling for particular important targets and for its Big Brother-style capacities. It can, for example, turn on the camera and audio-recording functions of an infected computer, enabling monitors to see and hear what goes on in a room. The investigators say they do not know if this facet has been employed.
The researchers were able to monitor the commands given to infected computers and to see the names of documents retrieved by the spies, but in most cases the contents of the stolen files have not been determined. Working with the Tibetans, however, 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 Lamas organization.
The electronic spy game has had at least some real-world impact, they said. For example, they said, after an e-mail invitation was sent by the Dalai Lamas office to a foreign diplomat, the Chinese government made a call to the diplomat discouraging a visit. And 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 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 F.B.I. declined to comment on the operation.
Although the Canadian researchers said that most of the computers behind the spying were in China, they cautioned against concluding that Chinas government was involved. The spying could be a nonstate, for-profit operation, for example, or one run by private citizens in China known as patriotic hackers.
Were a bit more careful about it, knowing the nuance of what happens in the subterranean realms, said Ronald J. Deibert, a member of the research group and an associate professor of political science at Munk. This could well be the C.I.A. or the Russians. Its a murky realm that were lifting the lid on.
A spokesman for the Chinese Consulate in New York 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 cybercrime.
The Toronto researchers, who allowed a reporter for The New York Times to review the spies digital tracks, are publishing their findings in Information Warfare Monitor, an online publication associated with the Munk Center.
At the same time, two computer researchers at Cambridge University in Britain who worked on the part of the investigation related to the Tibetans, are releasing an independent report. They do fault China, and they warned that other hackers could adopt the tactics used in the malware operation.
By JOHN MARKOFF
Published: March 28, 2009