Ghost hackers infiltrating the computers of Tibetan exiles and the U.S. electric grid have pulled the curtain back on 21st-century espionage as nefarious as anything from the Cold War, and far more difficult to stop.
Nowadays, a hacker with a high-speed Internet connection, knowledge of computer security and luck can pilfer information thought to have been safe. And the threat is growing, with countries -- including the U.S. -- pointing fingers at each other even as they ramp up their own cyber espionage.
The Pentagon said this week that it spent more than $100 million in the last six months responding to damage from cyber attacks and other computer network problems. And the White House is wrapping up a 60-day review of how the government can better use technology to protect everything from the nation's electrical grid and stock markets to tax data, airline flight systems and nuclear launch codes.
In 2008, there were 5,499 known breaches of U.S. government computers with malicious software, according to the Department of Homeland Security. That's up from 3,928 the previous year and just 2,172 in 2006.
Serious breaches by what are described as "unknown foreign entities" have occurred in recent years in computers at the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Commerce, as well as NASA, according to a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonpartisan organization in Washington.
In 2007, Russian hackers crippled computer networks in Estonia for nearly three weeks. In response, NATO set up an Estonia-based cyber defense center, and announced in April that cyber defense is being incorporated into NATO exercises. "NATO takes this threat very seriously," said Carmen Romero, a NATO representative in Brussels.