cnn.com - Vast Spy System Loots Computers in 103 Countries
tony at swalter.com
Sun Mar 29 17:54:41 UTC 2009
I hope that today's cnn.com article cited below meets the criteria of
"Internet operational and technical issues" pursuant to NANOG AUP criteria
S. Walter Packaging Corp.
tony at swalter.com
March 29, 2009
Vast Spy System Loots Computers in 103 Countries
By JOHN MARKOFF
TORONTO - 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
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
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 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 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
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 Lama's 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
Lama's 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 China's
government was involved. The spying could be a nonstate, for-profit
operation, for example, or one run by private citizens in China known as
"We're 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. It's a murky realm that we're 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
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.
"What Chinese spooks did in 2008, Russian crooks will do in 2010 and even
low-budget criminals from less developed countries will follow in due
course," the Cambridge researchers, Shishir Nagaraja and Ross Anderson,
wrote in their report, "The Snooping Dragon: Social Malware Surveillance of
the Tibetan Movement."
In any case, it was suspicions of Chinese interference that led to the
discovery of the spy operation. Last summer, the office of the Dalai Lama
invited two specialists to India to audit computers used by the Dalai Lama's
organization. The specialists, Greg Walton, the editor of Information
Warfare Monitor, and Mr. Nagaraja, a network security expert, found that the
computers had indeed been infected and that intruders had stolen files from
personal computers serving several Tibetan exile groups.
Back in Toronto, Mr. Walton shared data with colleagues at the Munk Center's
One of them was Nart Villeneuve, 34, a graduate student and self-taught
"white hat" hacker with dazzling technical skills. Last year, Mr. Villeneuve
linked the Chinese version of the Skype communications service to a Chinese
government operation that was systematically eavesdropping on users'
Early this month, Mr. Villeneuve noticed an odd string of 22 characters
embedded in files created by the malicious software and searched for it with
Google. It led him to a group of computers on Hainan Island, off China, and
to a Web site that would prove to be critically important.
In a puzzling security lapse, the Web page that Mr. Villeneuve found was not
protected by a password, while much of the rest of the system uses
Mr. Villeneuve and his colleagues figured out how the operation worked by
commanding it to infect a system in their computer lab in Toronto. On March
12, the spies took their own bait. Mr. Villeneuve watched a brief series of
commands flicker on his computer screen as someone - presumably in China -
rummaged through the files. Finding nothing of interest, the intruder soon
Through trial and error, the researchers learned to use the system's
Chinese-language "dashboard" - a control panel reachable with a standard Web
browser - by which one could manipulate the more than 1,200 computers
worldwide that had by then been infected.
Infection happens two ways. In one method, a user's clicking on a document
attached to an e-mail message lets the system covertly install software deep
in the target operating system. Alternatively, a user clicks on a Web link
in an e-mail message and is taken directly to a "poisoned" Web site.
The researchers said they avoided breaking any laws during three weeks of
monitoring and extensively experimenting with the system's unprotected
software control panel. They provided, among other information, a log of
compromised computers dating to May 22, 2007.
They found that three of the four control servers were in different
provinces in China - Hainan, Guangdong and Sichuan - while the fourth was
discovered to be at a Web-hosting company based in Southern California.
Beyond that, said Rafal A. Rohozinski, one of the investigators,
"attribution is difficult because there is no agreed upon international
legal framework for being able to pursue investigations down to their
logical conclusion, which is highly local."
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