Karma catches up with China?

The 50th anniversary of China’s invasion of Tibet, which it celebrated with an international Buddhist conference in Lhasa, has coincided with the revelation of another Chinese attack – on vital computers in 130 countries.

Unlike China’s high-profile 1959 military crackdown in Tibet, which led to the “Lhasa Uprising” and forced the country’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, to flee to India, this latest aggressive action had gone largely unnoticed by the world.

With perhaps a certain amount of karmic justice, we have the Dalai Lama to thank for revealing the Chinese subterfuge. Staff at the office of Tibet’s government-in-exile in Dharamsala, India , suspecting their computers had been affected by malicious software (malware), called in experts to check their systems.

What they discovered went far beyond the walls of the Dalai Lama’s office and has shaken governments around the world.

Whilst Beijing was hosting the 2008 Olympic Games and appearing to move closer to the democratic principles and human rights standards of other countries, a computerised spy ring based in China was delving into 1,300 computers in over 100 countries.

There are, it has to be said, many such networks harvesting information from unsuspecting corporations and individuals whose poor security systems have left their digital doors open to intruders.

The difference with this one is that whereas organised crime is clearly behind most of these networks, surreptiously stealing identities and assets, the Chinese project – named GhostNet by the investigators – appears to have a very different agenda.

Canadian and UK experts have revealed that the Chinese malware has penetrated computer systems in embassies, foreign ministries, government offices and military establishments, as well as the offices of the Dalai Lama, resulting in documents being stolen and transmitted back to computers on the Chinese mainland.

In the true spirit of espionage, the Chinese government denies all responsibility for the theft of other governments’ data, of course, but who else would be so interested in the activities of the Dalai Lama?

So, at the same time China’s puppet Panchen Lama was the main attraction at the Lhasa conference – the candidate identified as the reincarnation of the leading lama having not been seen since the Chinese government replaced him – governments around the world were being alerted to China’s extensive computer subterfuge.

Call it karma; call it synchronicity; call it whatever you like. What is certain, is that this startling revelation should lend weight to the Dalai Lama’s case, and make other countries even more cautious in their dealings with China.

Those interested in learning more about the attack and deciding for themselves who was behind it are encouraged to read the reports from the University of Toronto’s Munk Centre for International Studies – which can be downloaded from Tracking GhostNet: investigating a cyber espionage network – and the University of Cambridge’s The Snooping Dragon: social-malware surveillance of the Tibetan movement, both published at the end of March 2009.

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