Socio-Technical Influences of Cyber Espionage: A Case Study of the GhostNet System

Socio-Technical Influences of Cyber Espionage: A Case Study of the GhostNet System

Xue Lin (University of Ottawa, Canada) and Rocci Luppicini (University of Ottawa, Canada)
Copyright: © 2011 |Pages: 13
DOI: 10.4018/jte.2011040105
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Abstract

Technoethical inquiry deals with a variety of social, legal, cultural, economic, political, and ethical implications of new technological applications which can threaten important aspects of contemporary life and society. GhostNet is a large-scale cyber espionage network which has infiltrated important political, economic, and media institutions including embassies, foreign ministries and other government offices in 103 countries and infected at least 1,295 computers. The following case study explores the influences of GhostNet on affected organizations by critically reviewing GhostNet documentation and relevant literature on cyber espionage. The research delves into the socio-technical aspects of cyber espionage through a case study of GhostNet. Drawing on Actor Network Theory (ANT), the research examined key socio-technical relations of Ghostnet and their influence on affected organizations. Implications of these findings for the phenomenon of GhostNet are discussed in the hope of raising awareness about the importance of understanding the dynamics of socio-technical relations of cyber-espionage within organizations.
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Introduction

What these guys [corporate officials] don’t realize, because nobody tells them, is that a major foreign intelligence agency has taken control of major portions of their network. You can’t get rid of this attacker very easily. It doesn’t work like a normal virus. We’ve never seen anything this clever, this tenacious (Mills, 2010).

GhostNet was a cyber espionage network in 2008 that attracted much attention and raised serious public concern. The purpose of studying GhostNet here is to explore technoethical and communicative aspects of cyber espionage on affected organizations, which significantly influences cyber peace and corporate development. Despite an increased attention to hackers and cyber espionage in the media, little empirical research has actually been conducted on GhostNet. For example, although some research, like Tracking GhostNet: Investigating a Cyber Espionage Network by Information Warfare Monitor (2009), examines the GhostNet phenomenon, it focuses in detail on the social and technological aspects and how GhostNet was tracked, leaving out the influence on communication. Therefore, this study will remedy this deficiency and provide a contribution to the scholarly literature by adopting Actor Network Theory (ANT) to examine the technical and communicative actors of a socio-technical process in a whole system.

This analysis of socio-technical aspects of cyber espionage is guided by a dominant theory of Science and Technologies Studies (STS), namely Actor Network Theory. ANT emerged during the mid-1980s with work primarily from Bruno Latour and Michel Callon, and significant later contributions from John Law (1999). ANT is a conceptual framework for exploring collective socio-technical processes, whose advocates have paid particular attention to scientific and technological activities. ANT suggests that the work of science is not fundamentally different from other social activities, instead asserting that it is a process of heterogeneous engineering in which the social, technical, conceptual and textual are juxtaposed and translated (Latour, 1991; Law, 1999).

As applied to this study, ANT suggests that several aspects should be studied: the actors of cyber espionage (behaviours), hackers (people) and technology (objects), as well as the network associated with these actors. Based on ANT, this research focused on socio-technical aspects revolving around how the GhostNet network was formed and how it fell apart. This research study utilizes a case study approach guided by the work of Yin (2003) and Creswell (2007) to carry out a comprehensive document analysis of relevant industry reports, research literature and other documentation pertaining to the case.

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