By JOHN MARKOFF
Published: March 28, 2009
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/29/techn ... gewanted=2
...and the Chinese response...?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 concluded.
The Vast Reach of ‘GhostNet’ 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.
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.
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.
Back in Toronto, Mr. Walton shared data with colleagues at the Munk Center’s computer lab.
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’ instant-messaging sessions.
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 encryption.
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 disappeared.
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.
Well, I guess that settles that...wasn't the Chinese...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 original report from Cambridge...unedited...placing responsibility on the Chinese...very sharply worded!!!