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The discovery of Ghostnet found that a number of opponents of the Chinese government, such as the Dalai Lama’s network, had been infected for at least five years.

Mr. Hypponen said, “Ghostnet is the first case of this kind of thing on a broad scale.” He added that “Ghostnet and similar related attacks are probably not done in practice by the government, but they work through independent hackers.”

Former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said computer-based technology that used to be in the hands of the government have quickly made their way into the commercial sector.

“The most sophisticated tools at the very, very leading edge are still, I think, in the hands of the government,” he said in an interview last week after a panel appearance at the National Press Club. “But I think there is a lot of stuff out there. Look at the capability that private people have to get commercial encryption products which are pretty robust. This issue of trickling down from the very high-end technology down into the commercial space, I think that is a very fast process these days.”