The National Security Agency has sneaked software into nearly 100,000 computers around the world, the New York Times reports, allowing the U.S. to spy on adversaries such as Chinese army hackers, the Russian military and Mexican drug cartels and launch cyberattacks if need be.
“NSA’s activities are focused and specifically deployed against — and only against — valid foreign intelligence targets in response to intelligence requirements,” Vanee Vines, an agency spokeswoman, tells the Times.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the spy program, dubbed Quantum, is its ability to harness old technology to get inside computers not hooked up to the Internet. The secret? Radio waves.
“What’s new here is the scale and the sophistication of the intelligence agency’s ability to get into computers and networks to which no one has ever had access before,” says James Andrew Lewis, a cybersecurity expert.
By using tiny transceivers planted in USB plugs or itsy-bitsy circuit boards inserted into laptops — sometimes by the manufacturer — the NSA is able to glean data from up to 8 miles away.
The transceivers communicate with a briefcase-size NSA relay station. Data and malware are transmitted over a secret radio frequency, according to the Times, which cites documents leaked by Edward Snowden.
“Continuous and selective publication of specific techniques and tools used by NSA to pursue legitimate foreign intelligence targets is detrimental to the security of the United States and our allies,” Vines says.
Some European newspapers have already divulged aspects of the program.
But, the Times notes, most of the products described in the documents are at least five years old and are likely to have been updated. Such technology may have played a role in the Stuxnet attack on Iran, according to the Times.
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