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Cyber spies break into government computers

A cyber spy network based mainly in China hacked into classified documents from government and private organisations in 103 countries, including the computers of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan exiles, Canadian researchers said.

The work of the Information Warfare Monitor initially focused on allegations of Chinese cyber espionage against the Tibetan community in exile, and eventually led to a much wider network of compromised machines, the internet-based research group said.

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

The research group said that while it's analysis points to China as the main source of the network, it has not conclusively been able to detect the identity or motivation of the hackers.

Students For a Free Tibet activist Bhutila Karpoche said her organisation's computers have been hacked into numerous times over the past four or five years, and particularly in the past year. She said she often gets e-mails that contain viruses that crash the group's computers.

The IWM is composed of researchers from Ottawa-based think tank SecDev Group and the University of Toronto's Munk Centre for International Studies. The group's initial findings led to a 10-month investigation summarised in the report to be released online today.

The researchers detected a cyber espionage network involving over 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.

Once the hackers infiltrated the systems, they gained control using malware - software they install on the compromised computers - and sent and received data from them, the researchers said.

Two researchers at the UK's Cambridge University who worked on the part of the investigation related to the Tibetans are also releasing their own report today.

In an online abstract for The Snooping Dragon: Social Malware Surveillance of the Tibetan Movement, Shishir Nagaraja and Ross Anderson write that while malware attacks are not new, these attacks should be noted for their ability to collect "actionable intelligence for use by the police and security services of a repressive state, with potentially fatal consequences for those exposed".