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The discovery by University of Toronto researchers of a vast computer-spy network apparently linked to China should frighten governments, businesses and individuals everywhere. Whether or not it is linked to the Chinese government - the circumstantial evidence is strong but not certain, the Toronto researchers say - it is alarming, because the technology is cheap, easy to use and widely available. Cambridge University researchers in England have directly accused the Chinese government, and they add that a single, motivated individual could do much the same.

It is hard to know what is more astonishing, the range of the politically sensitive targets or the cleverness of the detective work by the researchers at the University of Toronto's Munk Centre for International Studies and SecDev, an Ottawa consulting firm. Infiltrators snuck inside at least 1,295 computers in 103 countries, often in government offices or the Dalai Lama's Tibetan exile centres around the world. Lives were almost certainly put at risk. Finally, 34-year-old Nart Villeneuve, a graduate student and computer whiz, plugged a line of computer code into Google and found the backbone of "control" servers behind the whole operation. Of such discoveries are legends made.

No one should be surprised when foreign countries (or our own) use computer-spying techniques. But, as the Cambridge researchers point out, in the hands of a repressive state these spy techniques could have fatal consequences for people exercising simple acts of free speech. The Dalai Lama's office became concerned when it contacted a foreign diplomat to extend an invitation to meet with the Tibetans' spiritual leader; before the diplomat could respond, the Chinese warned the diplomat not to attend. Canadian officials are wondering whether the Chinese have managed to eavesdrop on their government's electronic conversations, The Globe reports today. Whether anyone in the government has a plan to combat this is unclear.

The future belongs to the hackers. "We can safely hypothesize," the Canadian researchers say of GhostNet, as they've dubbed the computer spy network, "that it is neither the first nor the only one of its kind." The Cambridge researchers say, "What Chinese spooks did in 2008, Russian crooks will do in 2010 and even low-budget criminals from less developed countries will follow in due course." And so the future belongs also to those who can secure the Internet against the hackers. The Munk Centre's diligence has exposed not just a spy network but a multi-billion-dollar economic opportunity.