Canadian researchers say they have uncovered a China-based electronic spying operation that infiltrated computers in 103 countries. While they say they have no conclusive evidence of Chinese government involvement, the targets of the computer espionage were political. The cyber spying operation is one of the biggest and most sophisticated ever discovered.
Researchers at the University of Toronto call it Ghostnet - an electronic spying operation that infiltrated more than 1,000 computers around the world. They say it targeted NATO, the Indian Embassy here in Washington and Tibetan exile centers in India, Brussels and London. Researchers say that in addition to stealing computer files, the cyber spies could turn on the internal camera on a remote computer to eavesdrop on live conversations.
Nart Villeneuve is with the University of Toronto's Munk Center for International Studies. He says that while the operation was sophisticated in its organization and scope, it used readily available Internet viruses called Trojans, attached to email messages to infiltrate computers.
"From a purely technical point of view, no, it was not that sophisticated," said Nart Villeneuve. "The Trojan, the attacker favors, the 'ghost rat;' it's open sourced. You can go and download it. It's not like it is some clever special new way of doing it. But the way in which the attacker was able to leverage these tools was sophisticated."
The Toronto researchers uncovered the cyber spying operating when they were asked by the exiled Tibetan leader, the Dalia Lama to examine his organization's computers for malware - malicious software that can infiltrate or damage a computer system.
Although the group cannot say whether the Chinese government was involved, they add that Ghostnet's computers were almost exclusively located in China and that the targets were political. They found infected computers in the Dalai Lama's organization and were able to trace stolen correspondence back to the spy network's computer servers in China.
The Chinese government has denied any involvement in the operation.
But James Lewis, a technology expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington says cyber spying is nothing new for the Chinese government.
"We know that they are interested as a government," said Lewis. "We know that they've done it in the past as a government. And the things that are being collected are of interest to the Chinese government."
Lewis notes that many countries, including the United States and Russia, use computer technology to gather intelligence.
The University of Toronto researchers say an international agreement is needed to protect privacy rights and prohibit cyber spy operations like Ghostnet in the future.