Chinese spies: Coming to a PC near you?

Cyberspies are lurking on government networks in more than 100 countries, thanks (probably) to the Chinese government. Welcome to Cold War 2.0.

By now you've probably read about GhostNet, the vast spy network that was uncovered after the office of the Dalai Lama asked researchers at the University of Toronto to examine their computers for malware. The researchers not only found nasties there, they uncovered an entire network that connected almost 1,300 computers in 103 countries -- mostly government organizations, but also some machines at private companies, offices of NATO, and the Associated Press. (You can read their 53-page report here at Scribd.)

All of them had been infected with the Gh0st RAT (remote access tool) that turned their hard drives into an all-you-eat data buffet and their computers into RC toys. Per the New York Times:

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.

Well, that explains those "Tibetan Monks Gone Wild" videos I've been seeing advertised. Talk about raw, uncensored, and out of control. Hello Dalai!

As to the culprits, the Toronto researchers are somewhat circumspect. Chinese hackers? Probably. Spies working for the Chinese government? Maybe. It could also be freelance "patriotic hackers," or even Russian or CIA spooks trying to make the Chinese government look worse than it already does, say the researchers.

Security wonks at the University of Cambridge, on the other hand, aren't pulling any punches. In a report titled The Snooping Dragon: social-malware surveillance of the Tibetan movement, U.K. researchers Shishir Nagaraja and Ross Anderson accuse the Chinese government of running the spy show.

[A]gents of the Chinese government compromised the computing infrastructure of the Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. They used social phishing to install rootkits on a number of machines and then downloaded sensitive data.... 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.

(Look for the movie Snooping Dragon, Nosy Tiger coming to a multiplex near you.)

The U.S. government is not on the list of those infiltrated by GhostNet, but that hardly means we're in the clear. Defense officials have claimed China has attacked the DoD's IT infrastructure on several occasions (China denies this, natch). The country has been accused of breaking into White House computer systems and the Obama and McCain Web sites to have a look 'round the joint. Just this week Senator Bill Nelson (D-Florida) claimed Chinese hackers compromised the machines in his office.

Whatever it is we're doing, the Chinese appear to be deeply interested. That, or maybe they're just still really ticked off about that Guns-N-Roses' Chinese Democracy album. So I'm betting the Cambridge guys are on the right track. And they're saying nobody in government or business should be feeling very cozy about their IT security right now.

No-one should think that it could not happen to them, just because their company is in New York or London rather than an Indian hill station! The Tibetan sys admins were just as capable as one finds in the USA or Britain. Indeed, they were probably more aware of the Chinese threat and as a result more alert than a typical company security team. ... All in all, the Tibetans' performance has been more effective than we would have expected from a randomly-chosen Western organisation.

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Robert X. Cringely

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