An electronic spy network based mainly in China has infiltrated computers in government offices around the world, say Canadian researchers.
Hackers are reported to have stolen documents from governments and international organisations, including that of the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
In a report provided to the New York Times, a team from the Munk Center for International Studies in Toronto said at least 1,295 computers in 103 countries had been breached in less than two years by the spy system, which it dubbed GhostNet.
Embassies, foreign ministries, government offices and the Dalai Lama's Tibetan exile centers in India, Brussels, London and New York were among those infiltrated, said the researchers, who have detected computer espionage in the past.
The researchers concluded that computers based almost exclusively in China were responsible for the intrusions, although they stopped short of saying the Chinese government was involved in the system, which they described as still active.
Researcher Ronald Deibert said the CIA or the Russians could well be behind the network. "It's a murky realm that we're lifting the lid on," he said.
A spokesman for the Chinese Consulate in New York dismissed the idea China was involved, telling the newspaper that the stories are nonsense.
The Toronto researchers began their sleuthing after a request from the office of the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, to examine its computers for signs of malicious software, or malware.
The network they found possessed remarkable "Big Brother-style" capabilities, allowing it, among other things, to turn on the camera and audio-recording functions of infected computers for potential in-room monitoring, the report said.