Researchers at the Information Warfare Monitor uncovered a suspected cyber espionage network of over 1,295 infected hosts in 103 countries. This finding comes at the close of a 10-month investigation of alleged Chinese cyber spying against Tibetan institutions that consisted of fieldwork, technical scouting, and laboratory analysis.

Close to 30% of the infected hosts are considered high-value and include computers located at ministries of foreign affairs, embassies, international organizations, news media, and NGOs. The investigation was able to conclude that Tibetan computer systems were compromised by multiple infections that gave attackers unprecedented access to potentially sensitive information, including documents from the private office of the Dalai Lama.

Who is ultimately in control of the GhostNet system? While our analysis reveals that numerous politically sensitive and high value computer systems were compromised in ways that circumstantially point to China as the culprit, we do not know the exact motivation or the identity of the attacker(s), or how to accurately characterize this network of infections as a whole. One of the characteristics of cyber-attacks of the sort we document here is the ease by which attribution can be obscured.

Regardless of who or what is ultimately in control of GhostNet, it is the capabilities of exploitation, and the strategic intelligence that can be harvested from it, which matters most. Indeed, although the Achilles’ heel of the GhostNet system allowed us to monitor and document its far-reaching network of infiltration, we can safely hypothesize that it is neither the first nor the only one of its kind.

As Information Warfare Monitor principal investigators Ron Deibert and Rafal Rohozinski say in the foreword to the report, “This report serves as a wake-up call. At the very least, a large percentage of high-value targets compromised by this network demonstrate the relative ease with which a technically unsophisticated approach can quickly be harnessed to create a very effective spynet. These are major disruptive capabilities that the professional information security community, as well as policymakers, need to come to terms with rapidly.”

The full report can be downloaded here.

The report has been co-timed for release with an exclusive story by the New York Times‘ John Markoff.