Hackers spy on 1,295 computers in 103 countries
A second report, written by University of Cambridge researchers and published in conjunction with the University of Toronto paper, was less circumspect, saying that the attacks against the Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama (OHHDL) were launched by "agents of the Chinese government". The Cambridge team titled their report, 'The Snooping Dragon'.
The analysts' research started after they were granted access to computers belonging to Tibet's government in exile, Tibetan nongovernmental organisations and the private office of the Dalai Lama, which was concerned about the leak of confidential information, according to the report.
They found computers infected with malicious software that allowed remote hackers to steal information. The computers became infected after users opened malicious attachments or clicked on linked leading to harmful websites.
The websites or malicious attachments would then try to exploit software vulnerabilities in order to take control of the machine. In one example, a malicious email was sent to a Tibet-affiliated organisation with a return address of 'firstname.lastname@example.org' with an infected Microsoft Word attachment.
As the analysts probed the network, they found that the servers collecting the data were not secured. They gained access to control panels used to monitor the hacked computers on four servers.
Those control panels revealed lists of infected computers, which went far beyond the Tibet government and NGOs. Three of the four control servers were located in China, including Hainan, Guangdong and Sichuan. One was in the US, the report said. Five of the six command servers were in China, with the remaining one in Hong Kong.
The University of Toronto report classified close to 30 percent of the infected computers as being 'high-value' targets. Those machines belong to the ministry of foreign affairs of Bangladesh, Barbados, Bhutan, Brunei, Indonesia, Iran, Latvia and the Philippines. Also infected were computers belonging to the embassies of Cyprus, Germany, India, Indonesia, Malta, Pakistan, Portugal, Romania, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand.
International groups infected included the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) secretariat, SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) and the Asian Development Bank; some news organisations such as the UK affiliate of the Associated Press; and an unclassified NATO computer.
GhostNet's existence highlights a need for urgent attention to information security, the analysts wrote. "We can safely hypothesise that it [GhostNet] is neither the first nor the only one of its kind."
The Cambridge researchers predict that these highly targeted attacks bundled with sophisticated malware - they call them 'social malware' - will become more prevalent in the future. "Social malware is unlikely to remain a tool of governments," they write. "What Chinese spooks did in 2008, Russian crooks will do in 2010."
While F-Secure has seen only a few thousand of these attacks so far, they are already a problem for corporate users in the defense sector, Hypponen said. "We're only seeing this right now on a minuscule scale," he said. "If you could take techniques like this and do it on a massive scale, of course that would change the game."
(Robert McMillan in San Francisco contributed to this report)