GhostNet: Did the Chinese government hack the world?

"But the industrialisation of online crime over the past five years means that capably-written malware, which will not be detected by anti-virus programs, is available on the market."

Businesses watch out

The researchers said that social malware was not just a tool of governments, and that businesses needed to watch out. They also claimed that the "best practice advice" seen in the corporate sector came nowhere close to preventing such attacks.

And admins shouldn't assume they're too far ahead of the game to fall victim. The University of Cambridge researchers said that the Tibetan system administrators were just as capable as those in the US and Britain. In fact, as they are very much aware of the Chinese threat, they are more alert than a typical business security team.

The researchers gave an example of how a social malware attack could be applied to a typical medium-sized company, which could pay several thousand employees and tens of thousands of invoices every month.

Payments would be automated, which typically involve an accounting package feeding a payment application, supplied by the company's bank.

"A crook could target the payment PC directly, or proceed indirectly by taking over the PC of an accounts payable clerk or payroll clerk in order to input false data to the accounting system."

Ineffective response

The Cambridge report predicted that the response to the threat of malware would be slow and ineffective, with banks shifting the blame to accounting systems providers, and vice versa.

It said: "The banking regulators have shown that they believe whatever the banks tell them, that that they are uninterested in protecting bank customers, and in any case they have no expertise in information security."

The report claimed that initial attacks would affect only a minority of firms, so the rest will prefer to blame the attacks on the victims' negligence rather than acknowledging that their own policies need to change.

The size and audacity of GhostNet showed that organisations keeping sensitive information on network-attached computers needed to think long and hard about the implications.