By JOHN MARKOFF and DAVID BARBOZA, New York Times, April 5, 2010-
TORONTO — Turning the tables on a China-based computer espionage gang, Canadian and United States computer security researchers have monitored a spying operation for the past eight months, observing while the intruders pilfered classified and restricted documents from the highest levels of the Indian Defense Ministry.
In a report issued Monday night, the researchers, based at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, provide a detailed account of how a spy operation it called the Shadow Network systematically hacked into personal computers in government offices on several continents.
The Toronto spy hunters not only learned what kinds of material had been stolen, but were able to see some of the documents, including classified assessments about security in several Indian states, and confidential embassy documents about India’s relationships in West Africa, Russia and the Middle East. The intruders breached the systems of independent analysts, taking reports on several Indian missile systems. They also obtained a year’s worth of the Dalai Lama’s personal e-mail messages.
The intruders even stole documents related to the travel of NATO forces in Afghanistan, illustrating that even though the Indian government was the primary target of the attacks, one chink in computer security can leave many nations exposed.
“It’s not only that you’re only secure as the weakest link in your network,” said Rafal Rohozinski, a member of the Toronto team. “But in an interconnected world, you’re only as secure as the weakest link in the global chain of information.”
As recently as early March, the Indian communications minister, Sachin Pilot, told reporters that government networks had been attacked by China, but that “not one attempt has been successful.” But on March 24, the Toronto researchers said, they contacted intelligence officials in India and told them of the spy ring they had been tracking. They requested and were given instructions on how to dispose of the classified and restricted documents.
Location of Sichuan, China
On Monday, Sitanshu Kar, a spokesman for the Indian Defense Ministry, said officials were “looking into” the report, but had no official statement.
The attacks look like the work of a criminal gang based in Sichuan Province, but as with all cyberattacks, it is easy to mask the true origin, the researchers said. Given the sophistication of the intruders and the targets of the operation, the researchers said, it is possible that the Chinese government approved of the spying. …… (more details from New York Times)