Cyber-spies used social sites to trick Dalai Lama’s office: US expert

By Arun Kumar, Gaea News Network
Monday, March 30, 2009

WASHINGTON - A Chinese cyber-espionage network used sophisticated social and computer engineering techniques to trick the Dalai Lama’s office into downloading malicious software, according to a cyber security expert.

Researchers, based at the Munk Center for International Studies at the University of Toronto in Canada, Sunday reported that the spy ring had infiltrated computers and stolen documents from hundreds of government and private offices around the world, including those of the Indian embassy in Washington.

The software was attached to e-mails that purported to come from colleagues or contacts in the Tibetan movement, according to researcher Ross Anderson, professor of security engineering at the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory, cited by the Washington Times Monday.

The software stole passwords and other information, which in turn gave the hackers access to the office’s e-mail system and documents stored on computers there.

‘The intelligent and highly coordinated use of social engineering and [malicious software] techniques is extraordinarily effective,’ Anderson told the Times, warning that the techniques involved could easily be used by cybercriminals to victimise major companies.

‘It is only a matter of time before we see [these techniques] used by cybercriminals,’ he said. ‘The existing accounting systems of Fortune 500 companies are designed to withstand one crooked person… or one compromised computer at a time,’ he added, noting that the techniques employed against the Dalai Lama’s office enable hackers to compromise entire departments’ computer networks.

After analysing the software, Anderson and his colleagues turned their data over to researchers at the Munk Center, which published its findings Sunday.

‘There is no doubt that this is a Chinese state actor at work,’ Anderson said. ‘There is a lot of concurrence between what we found on the ground and what is known about Chinese information-warfare capabilities and doctrine… The targets are a very good fit with Chinese strategic intelligence priorities.’

The Toronto researchers declined to be so definite about who was behind the attacks.

Former senior US cybersecurity official Greg Garcia was similarly cautious, telling the Times that ‘attribution is a hall of mirrors’.

‘There are a whole range of complex technical and other questions that have to be resolved… before you start pointing fingers,’ said Garcia, who was assistant secretary for cybersecurity and communications at the Department of Homeland Security from October 2006 to last December.

He said it was the prevalence of such threats ‘from all over the world’ that led the Bush administration to launch the Comprehensive National Cyber Initiative last year. ‘Congress and the Obama administration need to use that momentum and accelerate funding and implementation,’ he said. ‘This is a race being run on internet time.’

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