A 10-month cyberespionage investigation has found that 1,295 computers in 103 countries and belonging to international institutions have been spied on, with some circumstantial evidence suggesting China may be to blame.
The 53-page report, released on Sunday, provides some of the most compelling evidence and detail of the efforts of politically-motivated hackers while raising questions about their ties with government-sanctioned cyberspying operations.
It describes a network which researchers have called GhostNet, which primarily uses a malicious software program called gh0st RAT (Remote Access Tool) to steal sensitive documents, control web cams and completely control infected computers.
"GhostNet represents a network of compromised computers resident in high-value political, economic and media locations spread across numerous countries worldwide," said the report, written by analysts with the Information Warfare Monitor, a research project of the SecDev Group, a thinktank, and the Munk Center for International Studies at the University of Toronto. "At the time of writing, these organisations are almost certainly oblivious to the compromised situation in which they find themselves."
The analysts did say, however, they have no confirmation if the information obtained has ended up being valuable to the hackers or whether it has been commercially sold or passed on as intelligence.
The operation probably started around 2004, the time security researchers noticed that many of these institutions were being sent bogus email messages with executable files attached to them, according to Mikko Hypponen, director of antivirus research at F-Secure. Hypponen, who has been tracking the attacks for years, says that GhostNet's tactics have evolved considerably from those early days. "For the past three-and-a-half years or so it's been fairly advanced and fairly technical."
"It's really good to see a spotlight on this while thing right now, because it's been going on for so long and nobody's been paying attention," he added.
Although evidence shows that servers in China were collecting some of the sensitive data, the analysts were cautious about linking the spying to the Chinese government. Rather, China has a fifth of the world's internet users, which may include hackers that have goals aligning with official Chinese political positions.
"Attributing all Chinese malware to deliberate or targeted intelligence gathering operations by the Chinese state is wrong and misleading," the report said.
However, China has made a concerted effort since the 1990s to use cyberspace for military advantage. "The Chinese focus on cyber capabilities as part of its strategy of national asymmetric warfare involves deliberately developing capabilities that circumvent US superiority in command-and-control warfare," it said.