ericauchard1– Eric Auchard is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

Once in a while a good computer security scare comes along that has all the makings of a taut Cold War spy thriller and the latest news of a global computer espionage ring is one such story.

A new report entitled “Tracking GhostNet: Investigating a Cyber Espionage Network,” argues that poorly defended computers used by government and private organizations in 103 nations may have been violated. The study has attracted widespread media attention after a New York Times story about it at the weekend.

The study by a group of activist researchers based in Toronto called “Information Warfare Monitor” says computers in various foreign ministries, embassies and Taiwanese trade groups have been pilfered by computers located at a Chinese government intelligence center on the island of Hainan. A computer in the private offices of the Dalai Lama was infected and e-mail lists and negotiating documents were stolen using a virus that “phoned home” to its controller, it alleges.

Data retrieved in the attacks appears to have been used to rein in Tibetan critics of China. But the report has trouble pinning the theft of computer secrets back to the Chinese government. It is also unclear how much information of value was gathered, outside a handful of instances. It conflates evidence of sniffing with acts of actual snooping.