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Vast Web Espionage Network Discovered

By using botnets, politically motivated attackers can enjoy relative impunity.
March 30, 2009

More than 1,200 computers worldwide have reportedly been infected by what appears to be a politically motivated spy system. Researchers from the Munk Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto discovered the sprawling “Ghostnet” after being asked to analyze computers belonging to the office of the Dalai Lama. According to Nart Villeneuve, a PhD student and one of the researchers involved:

Close to 30 [percent] of the infected hosts are considered high-value and include computers located at ministries of foreign affairs, embassies, international organizations, news media, and NGOs. The investigation was able to conclude that Tibetan computer systems were compromised by multiple infections that gave attackers unprecedented access to potentially sensitive information, including documents from the private office of the Dalai Lama.

Although some have attributed the spying to the Chinese government, the Toronto researchers say they can’t definitely pin the system to any particular group, even if it seems likely that it’s being run by people based in China.

That sort of uncertainty is the way of the future. In a recent story about politically motivated denial of service attacks, I wrote:

A big problem with these politically motivated attacks, according to Jose Nazario, manager of security research for Arbor Networks, is that it’s particularly hard to pinpoint who is really responsible. While it’s easy to determine which botnet is the source of an attack, it’s far harder to determine who might be paying for the attack. This is a big worry for governments looking for redress or retaliation.

The Internet–amazing, distributed technology that it is–offers plausible deniability for those who would take advantage of its darker side. The University of Toronto researchers noted that lack of clarity surrounding international law also makes it hard to pursue the investigation to a satisfying conclusion. Whether used for denial-of-service attacks or spying, the relative legal immunity these botnets enjoy will make them a tempting tool for unscrupulous organizations for a long time to come. Villeneuve concludes:

Regardless of who or what is ultimately in control of GhostNet, it is the capabilities of exploitation, and the strategic intelligence that can be harvested from it, which matters most. Indeed, although the Achilles’ heel of the GhostNet system allowed us to monitor and document its far-reaching network of infiltration, we can safely hypothesize that it is neither the first nor the only one of its kind.