GhostNet: Canada uncovers the new age of cyber espionage

Has it ever occurred to you that someone could be watching and listening to you anytime they want without even entering your home? If information is king, then GhostNet is one of its top generals. With just a flicker on your computer, GhostNet secretly installs itself and effectively takes control of your computer and maybe your life.

Thanks to the brilliant minds from our very own Munk Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto and our Ottawa-based think tank SecDev Group, GhostNet has been recently exposed to the public.

GhostNet is a cyber computer espionage network that has infected 1,295 computers worldwide in 103 countries including computers of governments, ministries, embassies, etc. GhostNet uses malicious software to take control of the infected computers ranging from governments such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Portugal, Romania, Korea, Latvia, and Iran to the Dalai Lama’s office and more. The scope of GhostNet is huge and consists of machines from high profile institutions.

Binary data decoding
Binary data decoding

Having worked in the hi-tech industry for more than five years, I know that reverse-engineering messages to expose GhostNet involves deciphering incomprehensible code and maybe even going through binary streams of data to decode encrypted messages. You can imagine how impressive the skills and capabilities of our researchers are to be able to detect such a network and analyze it in a span of one year. Not only have these researchers exposed GhostNet, they have also identified the different command/control servers and the capabilities of this system.

One of the more disturbing capabilities of GhostNet is that it allows the attacker to gain control of not only your information but it also uses your webcam and microphone to watch and hear everything that is happening in that room. This is some serious spy capabilities exceeding even those of the legendary 007 himself!

Show me the money!
Show me the money!

If you’re having a hard time imagining the power of GhostNet, consider what researchers found out about how it was being used: after an email invitation was sent by the Dalai Lama’s office to a foreign diplomat, the Chinese government made a call to the diplomat discouraging the visit. If you had GhostNet on your side, you could use it to tap into the computers of CEOs for all the major public companies and get inside information before anyone else knows about it! Think about ultimate untraceable insider trading!

So what does this mean for the innovation community? The reality is that we now live in the information age and if Canada is to become a major player in the new world scene, we need to ensure that Canada continues to educate bright young minds such as those from our Munk Centre for International Studies and SecDev Group. Innovation and creativity need to flourish in order for Canada to find such solutions for cyber espionage and develop sufficient expertise in this area.

Because, remember this the next time your computer flickers when you’re alone: you just might not be home alone anymore. Canada’s brainiacs are what stand between you and a “Home Alone” scenario. And let’s face it, no one wants THAT again.

For more information about this topic, see the full report on GhostNet.