Reporting from Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and New Delhi — The world is in a cyber arms race and needs to take steps to reverse it, said the authors of a report released Tuesday that detailed the extensive theft by Chinese hackers of Indian national security information, 1,500 e-mails from the Dalai Lama's office and other sensitive information.
Canadian and U.S. researchers at the University of Toronto monitored the hacking of a "shadow" spy network over eight months, tracking it to computer servers based in China and to individuals in the city of Chengdu in central China.
"The relationship between the Chinese state and the hacking community is quite unclear," said Nart Villeneuve, chief research officer at Canada's SecDev Group, a private think tank, working with the university's Munk Center for International Studies.
"I don't doubt that the information may just find its way to the Chinese government," Villeneuve said in a global webcast for reporters, "but as of now we have no hard evidence to prove that the hackers were backed by the Chinese government or were working for them."
China denied any role, dismissing the report's content as unsubstantiated and little more than rumor.
"I do not know what evidence these people have or what their motives are," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu. "We resolutely oppose all forms of cyber crime, including hacking."
The authors of the report, titled "Shadows in the Cloud" and involving the Information Warfare Monitor and Shadowserver Foundation groups, said that they weren't surprised by China's reaction but that the evidence speaks for itself.
The report describes a world in which governments are racing to militarize cyberspace, creating an environment ripe for crime and espionage.
The authors said about 700 documents marked restricted, secret or top secret were stolen from India. China's neighbor is one of many developing countries that have not paid enough attention to security in their headlong embrace of new technologies, said Ron Diebert, another member of the team that unveiled the hacking activity.
Among the compromised documents found were presentations in India on the Pechora surface-to-air missile system, the Iron Dome mobile missile defense system and Project Shakti, an artillery combat command and control system.
Researchers said the Dalai Lama allowed the team to carry out its inquiry after his e-mail system was hacked.
They said that neither the Chinese government nor the Chinese hacker community is monolithic, and the researchers are trying to work with that part of the government that wants to fight hacking.
"The attacks we uncovered were not random but very targeted, and it suggests to us that there is a shift from an industrial espionage to political espionage not necessarily backed by a state," Diebert said.
Rana is a special correspondent. Times Beijing Bureau chief Barbara Demick contributed to this report.