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Canadian researchers uncover spy plot against Dalai Lama

March 30, 2009

Canadians say they have uncovered broad espionage
network affecting 103 countries plus Tibetan exiles
The Globe and Mail (Canada)
March 28, 2009

TORONTO (CP) -- Canadian researchers have
uncovered a computer spying operation that they
say has stolen documents from hundreds of
government and private offices around the world.

The New York Times website reported Saturday that
the researchers, based at the Munk Centre for
International Studies at the University of
Toronto, said the system was being controlled
from computers based almost exclusively in China.

But they could not say conclusively the Chinese government was involved.

A spokesman for the Chinese Consulate in New York
dismissed the idea that China was involved, while
the Chinese Embassy in Toronto did not immediately return calls for comment.

The researchers had been asked by the office of
the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan leader whom
China regularly denounces, to examine its
computers for signs of malicious software, or malware.

"We uncovered real-time evidence of malware that
had penetrated Tibetan computer systems,
extracting sensitive documents from the private
office of the Dalai Lama,” investigator Greg Walton said.

They discovered 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.

The researchers said they believe 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.

Students For a Free Tibet activist Bhutila
Karpoche said she was not surprised about the
possibility that China could be behind the network.

"Our computers have been hacked into numerous
times over the past four to five years, and
especially in the past year,” Ms. Karpoche said.
She said she often gets e-mails that end up
containing viruses that crash the group's computers.

The operation continues to invade and monitor
more than a dozen new computers a week, the researchers said.

The malware can turn on camera and
audio-recording functions of an infected
computer, enabling monitors to see and hear what goes on in a room.

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 specific correspondence had
been stolen and the intruders had gained control
of the electronic mail server computers of the Dalai Lama's organization.

The researchers said they have notified
international law-enforcement agencies of the spying operation.

The F.B.I. declined comment on the operation.

The researchers are to publish their findings
Sunday in Information Warfare Monitor, an online
publication associated with the Munk Centre.

The researchers detected a cyber espionage
network involving more than 1,295 compromised
computers from the ministries of foreign affairs
of Iran, Bangladesh, Latvia, Indonesia,
Philippines, Brunei, Barbados and Bhutan. They
also discovered hacked systems in the embassies
of India, South Korea, Indonesia, Romania,
Cyprus, Malta, Thailand, Taiwan, Portugal, Germany and Pakistan.
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