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China rubbishes cyber-espionage claims

Spooky Ghostnet revives malware spying accusations

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China has been accused of using malware to spy against the Tibetan government-in-exile and the private office of the Dalai Lama, as well as numerous foreign embassies.

The study, entitled Tracking GhostNet: Investigating a Cyber Espionage Network, alleges the Chinese government may be running a cyber espionage network of 1,295 compromised computers in 103 different countries. The Information Warfare Monitor project alleges that many of the infected computers belong to foreign ministries and embassies, including the Indian embassy in Washington. The report was compiled by researchers from the Munk Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto and Ottawa-based think tank SecDev Group.

The report comes after Shishir Nagaraja from the Toronto team worked with experts at the Cambridge University to check, at the request of exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, whether on not machines in the Tibetan exile network had been compromised. The researchers found the machine had been hacked before uncovering evidence of a far wider cyber-espionage network, targeted at Asian countries in China's neighbourhood. Hacked systems were also unearthed in the embassies of countries including Romania, Cyprus and Germany.

China, via the China Daily, quotes military and security analysts in denying the reports, claiming that they are an attempt to paint China as a threat and are in any case "exaggerated".

The Infowar site is currently hard to access but a mirror of the paper can be found on the F-secure website here. F-Secure notes that the reported targeted attacks came in the form of booby-trapped email, cleverly disguised to appear genuine. The poisoned .doc and .xcl files attached to these emails used various vulnerabilities to install Trojans, such as Poison Ivy or Gh0st Rat.

Reports of this type of targeted Trojan attack go back at least five years. China has regularly been blamed by Western governments for this sort of thing in the past, so the Infowar's research simply adds detail to what was previously alleged.

Security watchers are interested in the InfoWar research but cautious about the conclusion that the Chinese government is necessarily behind the malware.

"At no point does it gather enough evidence to prove, conclusively, that the Chinese government or the People's Liberation Army are behind the attacks," Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant at Sophos said. "Just because Chinese computers are used in the scheme, does not mean that the Chinese authorities are behind the operation."

Cluley added that he'd be surprised if China was the only government engaged in cyber-espionage. "We would be fools to believe that countries would consider the internet and spyware "off-limits" as a tool for espionage. Countries are spying on each other all across the world for political, commercial and military advantage," he said. ®

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