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The World's Hottest Cyberwar Battlefield

Ghosts in the Machine

by PETER LEE

The Information Warfare Monitor (a joint venture of Toronto University’s Citizen Lab at the Munke Centre for International Studies and a Canadian think-tank called SecDev) teamed up with the Tibetan Government in Exile for a nine-month multi-continent investigation to develop a remarkable report on cyberwarfare operations targeting areas of concern to the People’s Republic of China, including Taiwan and Tibet.

The report was solicited by the TGIE; the significant resources devoted to preparing the report leads me to suspect that an impetus for the investigation was the possibility that Chinese security had learned how to exploit a dangerous vulnerability inside the Internet censorship and monitoring circumvention software developed by Citizen Lab and, presumably, running on many computers in the Tibetan emigre community.

The Information Warfare Monitor dubbed the Chinese operation “GhostNet”. The mechanism was remarkably simple, exploiting the remote monitoring utilities available to IT geeks and hackers to monitor and modify the contents of computers over the Internet.

Computers of interest were targeted with a Trojan program (either through malware in e-mail attachments or as applets downloaded from seeded webpages), Once installed, it secretly established communications with a server that downloaded a piece of open-source Chinese malware called gh0st RAT, which allowed the bad guys (or gals) not only to monitor the contents of the computer, but to secretly upload files, log keystrokes, and even activate audio and video acquisition from the web cams and microphones on the computers.

Yikes! The clever folk at IWM set up a “honey pot” computer that acquired the Trojan; then they were able to go in through the out door and find out what was happening on the server.

It turns out there were apparently four servers monitoring almost 1300 computers, including a slew of computers in the offices of the Tibetan Government in Exile around the world, various Taiwanese organizations, and a raft of government foreign affairs ministries throughout Europe and Asia.

The IWM team observed documents uploading from the Tibetan computers to the server. Reportedly, the Dalai Lama’s secret negotiating strategy and e-mail lists were acquired through this nefarious channel as well as who knows what else.

The report rather charitably declines to openly accuse the Chinese government as the operators of this scheme, acknowledging that one of the servers was in the United States while pointedly stating the other three were apparently on Hainan Island, “where the Lingshui signals intelligence facility and the Third Technical Department of the People’s Liberation Army” are located.

According to Global Security, Lingshui is pretty much spook central for China, analogous to a major U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency facility:

“A large SIGINT facility at Hainan Island is principally concerned with monitoring U.S. naval activities in the South China Sea. One of the first major projects reflecting growing Chinese interest in activities in the South China Sea was the major upgradingof SIGINT collection capacity. The large SIGINT complex on Hainan Island was significantly expanded by 1995. Established in 1968 at the Lingshui military air base, the Lingshui intelligence facility is said to be home to more than 1,000 intelligence analysts of the Third Technical Department. The complex is used to monitor downlinks from commercial communications satellites.”

Of course, the broad attack on a large number of targets whose common denominator is the Chinese government (Tibet, Taiwan) leads one to believe that the PRC is behind all this.

However, a risky, extremely political, and counter-intelligency operation like “GhostNet” –and one that requires only a few computers, geeks, and a taste for malicious mischief—is perhaps not the kind of thing that one slots into a large, highly disciplined operation whose main job is to monitor with intense interest what the United States is up to in the South China Sea.

The casual, scattershot approach and disregard for countermeasures (like dealing exclusively through third-country servers that would provide deniability to the Chinese government in case of exposure) implies to me that “GhostNet” was an initiative of some computer-savvy group inside Chinese intelligence who were given a license to go phishing and see what they could catch.

Anyway, that’s a distinction without much of a difference.

The report included this anecdote about the Drewla group, an organization ostensibly promoting harmless web-based chat between émigrés and youth inside Tibet:

“A member of Drewla…decided to return to her family village in Tibet after working two years for Drewla. She was arrested at the Nepalese-Tibetan border and taken to a detention facility, where she was held incommunicado for a period of two months. She was interrogated by Chinese intelligence personnel about her employment in Dharmsala. She denied having been politically active and insisted that she had gone to Dharmsala for studies. In response to this, the intelligence officers pulled out a dossier on her activities and presented her with full transcripts of her Internet chats over the years. They indicated that they were fully aware of, and were monitoring, the Drewla outreach initiative and that her colleagues were not welcome to return to Tibet.”

Of course, chat is presumably monitored by the Great Firewall of China and it wouldn’t seem necessary to rummage through Drewla’s computers — which apparently are contaminated with the gh0st RAT malware –to obtain the transcripts.

Interestingly, the University of Toronto Citizen Lab is also in the hacking business, having spun off a corporation to promote a software called “Psiphon”, designed expressly to evade Internet censorship in countries like China.

Interested parties install the Psiphon software on computers outside the targeted countries, get an IP address from the Psiphon mothership (the Psiphon manual uses “https://84.202.55.330:443jane4freedom” as an example; my advice: ix-nay on the eedom-fray) and relies on “social networks of trust” to distribute the URL together with log-ins and passwords inside the censoring country so people can message to the Psiphon server using the encrypted https protocol and get unfettered access to the Internet.

The assumption is that, since a host of financial and webmail processes use https, the censoring government can never shut down https communications wholesale.

That would imply that a censoring government would have to go after the servers one by one—judging from Wikipedia there are myriad ways of compromising https communications — and Psiphon’s protection would be safety in numbers i.e. signing up a lot of nodes to overwhelm the censors.

Last year, Citizen Lab put the word out that it had 150,000 nodes and was “reaching out to locals” to blog and broadcast about Tibet during the Beijing Olympics, which undoubtedly endeared it to the Chinese government.

The Psiphon servers are not anonymizers, which means that a hack into a PC set up as a Psiphon server would presumably yield a treasure trove of information both on users and the web pages they are visiting.

As Psiphon’s entry on Wikipedia notes, with just a hint of anxiety:

“Through the psiphon control panel, psiphonode administrators have access to a log of sites that their psiphonites access, which makes the psiphon user subject to the consequences of any lack of good security practices, ill will, or possible censorship by the psiphonenode administrator. The authors of psiphon stress that these issues are "trust" issues, with exception of poor security practices, and should not present a problem because of the positive social relationship(s) between psiphon user(s) and psiphonode administrator(s). The theory being that if there is a good enough relationship to establish a psiphon user to psiphonode administrator tie, issues such as psiphonode censorship and ill will are not likely to arise, hence the term "social networks of trust" used in psiphon literature."

If the Chinese government discovers a “psiphonode”, hacks into it, collects the IP addresses of the visitors and a list of the sites they visited, I imagine that the “positive social relationship” between the psiphonode administrator and his or her hapless psiphonsite buddy will be little consolation.

So, maybe the “GhostNet” report was an attempt to identify dangerous vulnerabilities of the Psiphon system as well as a piece of pro-bono do-goodery on behalf of the Tibetan émigrés.

Fact is, given the close ties between Citizen Lab and the Tibetan emigre movement, I would speculate that Dharmsala is a hive of Psiphon servers; and I wonder one result of the "GhostNet" hack was to infect the psiphonodes and send a trove of information about users inside Tibet back to Chinese security forces. Doh! That might cause potential psiphonode operators to think twice about participating in the program.

Tibet has apparently become the world’s hottest cyber-warfare battlefield. The Tibetan émigré movement has struggled to get unfiltered information (and, perhaps, instructions) into the Tibetan areas of the PRC.

The Chinese government has played whack-a-mole in response, monitoring Internet traffic and chat, blocking sites, jamming webpages with DNS attacks, shutting down Youtube last year and text messaging this year, confiscating satellite dishes and apparently even taking down cellphone towers.

It looks like the Chinese have given up, perhaps for good, on the whole hearts and minds thing in the Tibetan occupation.

Instead, the PRC hopes that it can keep the lid on in the Tibetan areas until mortality catches up with the Dalai Lama, the émigré movement fractures permanently between disheartened moderates and disgruntled activists, and Han migration permanently dilutes the Tibetan character of China’s southwest.

However, I wonder if the iron law of unintended consequences may soon be at work here and the focus of Tibetan dissent will shift away from the impotent émigrés to the angry and disaffected residents of Tibet, who will be much more difficult for China to handle.

What China should be worried about is exactly what it is working to achieve: the rise of a Tibetan generation that is not inspired by occasional contact with the remote and esteemed figure of the Dalai Lama in India, but one that instead creates its lasting identity from its isolation inside the PRC—and draws its bitterness and resentment from the shared memory of the Chinese occupation. And that’s a lot more powerful than the Internet.

PETER LEE is a business man who has spent thirty years observing, analyzing, and writing on Asian affairs. Lee can be reached at peterrlee-2000@yahoo.