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Last weekend, a report by researchers at the Munk Center of the University of
Toronto revealed “GhostNet,” a computer espionage virus that had infected around
1,300 computers worldwide–including many “high value” targets where diplomatic
and national security information was stored. The attack focused on computers in
Southern Asia and offices belonging to the Dalai Lama, exiled leader of
China-occupied Tibet. GhostNet-infected machines were controlled by computers
located in the People’s Republic. Experts disagree on whether the evidence
proves China’s guilt or merely suggests it overwhelmingly. Either way, the most
important message goes far beyond computer espionage.
The attack had real-world implications, although what’s emerged so far is apt
to be a small fraction of the actual damage. After the Dalai Lama’s office sent
an e-mail invitation to a foreign diplomat, Beijing diplomats happened to phone
the same diplomat and discourage the visit. A China-bound traveler who had used
the Internet to help put Tibetan exiles in contact with Chinese dissidents was
stopped at the Chinese border, shown transcripts of the online exchanges, and
warned to cut it out.
The focused nature of the attack helped it succeed. Businesses and other
organizations that detect viruses are less likely to notice and get hold of a
new virus that attacks a mere thousand computers instead of hundreds of
thousands. Until the target organizations do get hold of the virus, they can’t
analyze it and use “signature detection” and related techniques to warn users
when infected cyberstuff arrives on their machines.
GhostNet evidently invaded its victim computers when users opened a toxic
e-mail attachment or followed a link to a poisoned Web site. A GhostNet-infected
machine would then bide its time like a mole behind enemy lines, awaiting an
electronic signal from headquarters, at which point it would betray its host on
The infected computer could browse local files under remote control and send
back copies to Ghost HQ. The virus was even capable of using a victim computer’s
built-in camera and microphone to watch and listen. GhostNet, in other words,
transformed ordinary computers into advanced bugging devices that the victims
had paid for and installed themselves.
Of course the Internet is a dangerous place because the world is, and the Net
mirrors the world more faithfully every day: The Internet is the still pond that
reflects the surrounding village on its surface. Detailed investigation by
experts is the way to smoke out criminals in the real world and in the
cybersphere. In both worlds, criminal minds evolve and mutate continuously.
Adding new security devices as new crimes catch on can mitigate the problem but
can’t solve it.
The crime paradox is the same whether we are talking real world or
cybersphere: The more completely you isolate valuable property, the less
vulnerable it becomes–and the harder for legitimate users to access and
(therefore) the less valuable. If you transfer important documents from a locked
desk to a safe-deposit box to a sealed concrete bunker, they get safer each step
of the way and wind up completely useless. Allowing a computer only occasional,
short and unpredictable access to the Internet complicates some aspects of
computer crime, but (obviously) restricts ordinary e-mail, messaging and Web
use. To make some computer completely safe, you would disconnect it
completely–in which case the criminals could break into your office and steal
Discussion and reporting about GhostNet has focused mainly on its frightening
technical sophistication. But that misses the larger point.
GhostNet reminds us that the new Cold War won’t be fought with the threats
and weapons of the old one. Americans might have less trouble keeping in mind
occupied Tibet, the war on Chinese Christianity, the imprisonment and torture of
political dissidents and members of Falun Gong, the one-child-only decree and
other specimens of PRC tyranny if they didn’t find Asian-on-Asian violence so
deucedly boring. Instead of paying attention to those issues, we simper about
mutual respect and cooperation–without acknowledging the fact that China is
today the world’s most powerful Evil Empire. The Soviets favored large armies
and nuclear arsenals, but China is our new Cold War enemy, and her favorite
weapons will also be novel: financial weapons, trade weapons, cyberweapons.
Welcome to Cold War II.
David Gelernter is a national fellow at AEI.
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