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Cyber spying a threat, and everyone is in on it

April 12, 2009

The Associated Press
April 09, 2009

Ghost hackers infiltrating the computers of
Tibetan exiles and the U.S. electric grid have
pulled the curtain back on 21st-century espionage
as nefarious as anything from the Cold War — and far more difficult to stop.

Nowadays, a hacker with a high-speed Internet
connection, knowledge of computer security and
some luck can pilfer information thought to be
safely ensconced in a digital locker. And the
threat is growing, with countries — including the
U.S. — pointing fingers at each other even as
they ramp up their own cyber espionage.

The Pentagon this week said it spent more than
$100 million in the last six months responding to
damage from cyber attacks and other computer
network problems. And the White House is wrapping
up a 60-day review of how the government can
better use technology to protect everything from
the nation's electrical grid and stock markets to
tax data, airline flight systems and nuclear launch codes.

In 2008, there were 5,499 known breaches of U.S.
government computers with malicious software,
according to the Department of Homeland Security.
That's up from 3,928 the previous year, and just 2,172 in 2006.

Serious breaches by what are described as
"unknown foreign entities" have occurred in
recent years in computers at the Departments of
Defense, Homeland Security and Commerce, as well
as NASA, according to a report by the Center for
Strategic and International Studies, a nonpartisan organization in Washington.

The electrical grid might already have been
compromised by spies who left behind computer
programs that would let them disrupt service, a
former U.S. government official told The
Associated Press. The official said the
sophistication of the attack meant it was almost
certainly state-sponsored, but the government
does not know its extent because federal
officials lack the authority to monitor the entire grid.

"The vulnerability may be bigger than we think,"
said the official, who asked not to be identified
because he was not authorized to discuss details.

It's not just the United States. In 2007, Russian
hackers crippled computer networks in Estonia for
nearly three weeks. In response, NATO set up an
Estonia-based cyber defense center, and announced
in April that cyber defense is being incorporated into NATO exercises.

"NATO takes this threat very seriously," Carmen
Romero, a NATO representative in Brussels, told
the AP. "NATO has to be ready for the new
security challenges, and cyber attacks are one of them."

In Germany, experts have been monitoring Chinese
cyber espionage since the 1990s. A
counterespionage official with Germany's domestic
intelligence agency said the country has verified
"many hundreds of attacks per year," and that
others had likely gone undetected.

"We expect that the attacks we've seen are only
the tip of the iceberg," said the official, who
spoke on condition of anonymity because of the
sensitive nature of the subject. "We follow the
attacks to their source, and many come from China."

Governments are not the only targets.

David Livingstone, author of a report on cyber
threats by the London-based Chatham House think
tank, said cyber espionage is a problem in all
sectors — businesses, government and individuals.

"Anywhere there is attractive intellectual
property and anything that is valuable and useful
to someone else will be a target," he said.

In fact, the ubiquity of computers and the need
to spread information electronically leaves us
all vulnerable. Joel Brenner, head of the U.S.
Office of the National Counterintelligence
Executive, has warned that skilled cyber
attackers can remotely turn on the camera on your
home computer, convert your cell phone into a
listening device, and even convert the earphones of your iPod into microphones.

Gone are the days when spies like American
Whittaker Chambers hid microfilm in a
hollowed-out pumpkin or Christopher Boyce
spirited classified documents away inside a
potted plant. Even Aldrich Ames, perhaps the
CIA's most notorious double agent, used both hard
documents and disks to betray U.S. secrets to Russia.

"Now, you can walk into many corporate and
government offices, slip a thumb drive into an
open USB port and download in seconds more
information than all these traitors stole
together," Brenner said in a recent speech on cyber espionage.

You don't even need a thumb drive. By
infiltrating the Dalai Lama group's e-mail system
with malware, cyber invaders saw nearly
everything his monks did, from discussions of
protest plans to documents that could have put
activists at risk. And the Chinese hackers went
even further, infiltrating 1,295 computers in 103 countries.

The information was used to warn foreign
officials against meeting with the Dalai Lama,
and to stop at least one Tibetan activist at the
airport, according to researchers from the
Ottawa-based think tank SecDev Group and the
University of Toronto's Munk Centre for International Studies.

"People in Tibet may have died as a result,"
concluded a bleak assessment by computer
engineers at Cambridge University in Britain also
involved in the case. The Cambridge security
experts recommended the exiles keep any sensitive
information on computers that are never used to
connect to a network, or better yet, use pen and paper.

"We have seen all sorts of attempts to
computerize things that should never have been
computerized," Ross Anderson, lead author of the
Cambridge report, told the AP. "It takes a
professor of computer science to have the
confidence to say that some things simply should never be put on a computer."

While China's name pops up most in headlines
about cyber espionage, experts say Russian hackers are at least as dangerous.

Last summer, in the weeks leading up to the war
between Russia and Georgia, Georgian government
and corporate Web sites began to see "denial of
service" attacks, in which sites are deluged with
traffic so as to effectively take them off-line.
The Kremlin denied involvement, but a group of
independent Western computer experts traced
domain names and Web site registration data to
conclude that the Russian top security and
military intelligence agencies were involved.

"It is, quite simply, implausible that the
parallel attacks by land and by cyberspace were a
coincidence — official denials by Moscow
notwithstanding," Eka Tkeshelashvili, the head of
the Georgia's National Security Council, said in
a speech in Washington last month.

China has denied any involvement in the Tibetan
attacks and in cyber espionage. Chinese officials
note that cyber invaders can use technology to
bounce their identities off IP addresses around
the world, making it difficult to pinpoint their
whereabouts. And they claim the United States
maintains a wide technological superiority in cyberspace.

Chen Wenguang, a Chinese computer expert, said
any American accusations of Chinese cyber spying
are "just another case of a robber crying 'Stop, thief!'"

"I believe that it is the Americans that steal
the most secrets," said Chen, assistant director
of the computer science department at Beijing's
Tsinghua University. Chinese Foreign Ministry
spokeswoman Jiang Yu said Tuesday the recent
headlines were an attempt to sully the country's image.

U.S. officials acknowledge that even as they step
up the nation's digital defense, they are quietly
moving forward with an offense. Military
officials in Washington said they had established
rules for any offensive cyber strike, but would
not say if the Pentagon already has pursued cyber warfare operations.

"A good defense also depends on a good offense,"
said Air Force Gen. Kevin Chilton, who heads U.S. Strategic Command.

Haven reported from Madrid. Associated Press
writers Lolita C. Baldor in Washington, Alexa
Oleson in Beijing, Mike Eckel in Moscow, Matt
Moore in Berlin, Debbie Seward in Paris, Dean
Carson and Laura Nichols in London and Ashwini
Bhatia in Dharmsala, India, contributed to this report.

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