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Internet Espionage Tied to Repression and Crime

Even the Dali Lama isn't safe from hacking, according to a report released on Tuesday.

The report, "Shadows in the Cloud," documents Internet espionage operations that targeted and compromised computer systems in India and the offices of the Dalai Lama, among other instances. Cyber-warfare is now the great equalizer around the world.

"Countries no longer have to spend billions of dollars to build globe-spanning satellites to pursue high-level intelligence gathering when they can do so via the web," the report's authors write.

Most of this clandestine activity is aimed at the world's two fastest growing economies in China and India, according to the report. In the case of the Dalai Lama, hackers extracted an entire year's worth of e-mail messages to and from the spiritual leader.

The joint report by the Information Warfare Monitor and Shadowserver Foundation monitored attacks originating from the People's Republic of China, particularly Chengdu, the capital of China's Sichuan province. However, the report stops short of saying that these attacks are government sanctioned or have the official mandate of any government.

The report's release comes at a pivotal time. Google recently stopped censoring its Google.cn portal for the Chinese government after human rights advocates' e-mail accounts were tapped by hackers traced to China. Last week, Google turned its attention to Vietnam, where it says attackers have spread malware through Vietnamese language keyboard software, using that tactic to curtail political dissent.

Governments around the world are in a new sort of arms race to "militarize cyber space," the report notes.

"This arms race creates an opportunity structure ripe for crime and espionage to flourish," the report said. "In the absence of norms principals and rules of mutual restraint at a global level, a vacuum exists for subterranean exploits to fill."

Andrew Storms, director of security at nCircle, suggested that political spying over the Internet is now widespread.

"The only surprise [from the report] is the expectation that there is any major world power that isn't engaged in some form of cyber-monitoring of both friendly and adversarial relationships," Storms said. "The reality is that every country is vulnerable to cyber-espionage and cyber-attack."

About the Author

Jabulani Leffall is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in the Financial Times of London, Investor's Business Daily, The Economist and CFO Magazine, among others.

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