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From China With Love…?

There’s nothing sexier than a spy. Unless, of course, that spy is a faceless web spook stealing documents from the Dalai Lama. Hope all of you have already read this fascinating Times piece about GhostNet, the shadowy malware espionage project uncovered by those smart folks at the Munk Centre, affilited with the University of Toronto. (Munk’s Citizen Lab also broke the story of China’s Skype monitoring, which I wrote about back in December.) GhostNet covertly spied on computers in over 103 countries, including a host of different computers affiliated with the Dalai Lama. Read the full report here.

Researchers traced the servers back to their physical locations, and as it turns out three of the four are in China. It’s hard to not to feel, especially given the focus of Tibetan computers, that this wasn’t an inside job by People’s Liberation Army cyber-warriors. James Fallows, however, has made a persuasive case for skepticism.

Fallow’s chief point is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish state from non-state actors on the web. GhostWeb might be in cahoots with the Chinese intelligence service, or it might be a band of patriotic hackers, or, God knows, the CIA. One does wonder though what patriotic Chinese hackers would do with sensitive Tibetan documents besides hand them over to Chinese authorities.

Regardless, the Web’s dense underbrush of anonymity empowers astro-turfers, spreaders of misinformation and, as we can now say with certainty, powerful hacker-spies (do they wear tuxedos and drink martinis too?) to prowl unnoticed. No fancy glass cutters or laser trippers needed. This includes dramatic digital cossacks, like the kids that nearly toppled Estonia’s government websites, and more pernicious and hidden efforts like Ghostnet.

For all the powerful and positive changes the Internet heralds (and we have been eager prophets on this blog), there are coequal dangers posed by our greater inter-connection and -dependence. Not to go Luddite on you all, but remote access is always a blessing and a curse.

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