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China cyber spy update: business vulnerable to social malware

Warwick Ashford

Businesses have no defences against social malware attacks like those used by Chinese hackers against the Tibetan movement, says a Cambridge University report.

The report is based on research conducted in tandem with Canadian researchers who have uncovered a China-based cyber spy operation dubbed "GhostNet" in more than 100 countries.

High profile targets included Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, according to a report by Canada's Information Warfare Monitor (IWM) research group.

The Cambridge research identifies how the Tibetan movement was infiltrated using a combination of social engineering and malware, called social malware.

Well-designed email lures and well-written malware is devastatingly effective, said the report by Ross Anderson of Cambridge University and Shishir Nagaraja of the University of Illinois.

"Few organisations outside the defence and intelligence sector could withstand such an attack," the report said.

Hackers were able to break into email systems and gather enough information to trick members of the Tibetan movement into clicking on malicious links in highly plausible messages.

Malware was also delivered by stealing legitimate email in transit and replacing attachments with toxic ones.

According to the report's authors, government agency-style protection against social malware is too expensive and intrusive for ordinary businesses to sustain.

"Evolving practical low-cost defences against defences against social malware attack [for business use] will be a real challenge," they said.


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