In 2008, monks in the Office of His Holiness The Dalai Lama had suspicions that someone was reading their e-mail. For example, when they followed up on an e-mail request to meet with a diplomat, they would find that a Chinese representative had just called to discourage the get-together.
There were other signs, too, that something was amiss. Confidential documents and sensitive information were leaked.
Was there a spy in their ranks? Had someone cracked their computers?
Discreetly, the monks started making inquiries with Western security experts. They wound up at the doorstep of Information Warfare Monitor, a group of researchers based at the University of Toronto and led by a political scientist named Ronald J. Deibert.
Deibert jumped at the chance to investigate security lapses threatening one of the highest profile religious leaders on the planet.
Information Warfare Monitor investigators found that the Dalai Lama’s network had been infected with malware — malicious software that covertly infiltrates a computer system.
This malware program had been shopping for sensitive files, embedding them in innocuous-looking messages and shipping them out through e-mail. The investigators called their discovery “GhostNet.”
Was Beijing behind GhostNet? We know that Chinese officials detained a student at the Nepalese-Tibetan border on charges of “political activity” and confronted her with a complete transcript of all her Internet chats over the previous two years.
Where did they get all that information? One suspects it came from GhostNet.
Odds are GhostNet never came up in discussions during Chinese President Hu Jintao’s state visit to Washington last week. Between the grip-and-grins and the public palaver, how much time was there to bring up reports of Chinese cyber-snooping into U.S. government computers and those of other Western powers?
Surely President Barack Obama didn’t dwell on the Red Hacker Alliance, a Beijing-sanctioned “network security” organization.
Though Beijing is keenly interested in cyber-communications, it’s not at all into online freedom. Both the Ministry of Public Safety and the State Secrecy Bureau have cyber-security units at all levels of government.
Their ranks number in the hundreds of thousands and include college students who do part-time “online law enforcement” in exchange for computer and Internet access. The government also employs technologies to block and censor online content. YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Blogger and Wikipedia are all blocked in China.
Beyond doubt, China is the No. 1 threat to both U.S. cybersecurity and Internet freedom. But during the runup to Hu Jintao’s visit, Defense Secretary Robert Gates eschewed confronting Beijing on these issues. Instead, he proposed more bilateral military consultative talks to build “trust and confidence” between the two sides.
However the White House wants to frame U.S.-China relations, it needs to get more serious about cyber threats. Otherwise the president may awaken one day to find Beijing reading his Blackberry.
James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at The Heritage Foundation.