Canadian computer researchers say they have discovered a large electronic spy network, primarily based in China, that infiltrated computers and stole information from governments and private offices around the world.
The Buddhist spiritual leader the Dalai Lama and his Tibetan government-in-exile were among key targets of the computer attackers.
In a report published Sunday, researchers at the University of Toronto said the intruders entered nearly 1,300 computers in 103 countries. About 30 percent of the infected computers are listed as "high-value targets" - government offices, embassies, international organizations or news media.
The Canadian team (from the university's Munk Center for International Studies) dubbed the cyper-espionage network "GhostNet" (taking the name from a program used by the attackers). Victims generally were unaware that their systems were compromised, but attackers had full control of the infiltrated computers, and could operate microphones or cameras attached to the devices.
Officials at China's U.N. consulate in New York say they consider the Canadian report to be nonsense.
The research report "Tracking GhostNet," published in the on-line journal "Information Warfare Monitor", says all of the spy networks' programs and commands definitely originated from commercial Internet accounts in China, but that experts could not pinpoint the ultimate source of the attacks.
Ron Deibert, a co-author of the report, says Chinese cyper-espionage is a major global concern, and "some may conclude that what we lay out here points definitively to China as the culprit." However, he adds there is insufficient evidence to conclude that GhostNet - which is still operating - is linked to the Chinese government.
"...Attributing all Chinese malware to deliberate or targeted intelligence-gathering operations by the Chinese state is wrong and misleading," Deibert wrote in the foreword to his team's report. "Numbers can tell a different story. China is presently the world's largest Internet population. The sheer number of young digital natives online can more than account for the increase in Chinese malware. With more creative people using computers, it's expected that China (and Chinese individuals) will account for a larger proportion of cybercrime."
The 53-page report published by "Informational Warfare Monitor" says offices of the Tibetan government-in-exile, based in India, clearly were a major target of the cyper-spies, as were several south Asian nations and South Africa.
Researchers reported no evidence that U.S. government computer networks were breached.
The Canadian team began its nine-month-long investigation of GhostNet at the request of the office of the Dalai Lama, after files were stolen from personal computers serving several Tibetan exile groups.
Deibert said he and his colleagues hope their report will serve "as a wake-up call" to governments and international organizations about the "major disruptive capabilities" of cyber-espionage.