The National Security Agency has a new worry for countries and users who thought that only computers connected to the internet could be hacked and spied upon by the National Security Administration (NSA) and other intelligence organizations. According to the New York Times, the NSA has uploaded software to nearly 100,000 computers worldwide; some of the computers remained offline and were thought to be secured from cyberattacks. The technology allows the agency to watch what is done and even alter information on these computers around the globe.
Officials support the data revealed in NSA documents, which states that the agency has been using this method since at least 2008. The technology uses USB cards or tiny circuit boards secretly inserted into the target computers, which then transmit a covert radio wave channel to relay stations intelligence agencies set up, which can be miles away from the computer location. The preferred method of insertion is to install the radio devices in the computers when they are first manufactured, though at times a spy must physically insert the device or get an unsuspecting user to do it for them.
The Times reported that the information came from documents released to the world at large by Edward Snowden, and that the code name for the project is Quantum. Once such document was an image of a map showing locations where the US had inserted the devices on local computers. The Times says that the Chinese Army is the most frequent target of this type of computer hack, but that it has also been used in the computers of the Russian military, European Union trade institutions, Mexican drug cartels as well as Mexican police, and even countries against terrorism such as India, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
The NSA’s ability to hack offline computers worldwide is said to be a great boon for the agency. Getting into computers that have been protected from cyberattacks or been made impervious to spying by a lack of internet connection has always been a problem for the intelligence community at large until Quantum. However, the NSA considers its actions those of defense rather than attack, to protect against cyberattacks from foreign computers.
The U.S. is not the first country to use such methods, either. Chinese attackers placed a similar type of software on American government or company computers which when located caused a stir against the Chinese.
A spokeswoman for the NSA, Vanee Vines, said in a written statement that the this type of software is used only against foreign intelligence targets which are vetted and focused on accomplishing specific goals. Vines dismissed implications that the NSA’s decisions on where to place the devices are unconstrained and arbitrary, going on to say that the software’s sole purpose is for intelligence, not to steal trade secrets from foreign companies to benefit US companies.
Chinese officials have not responded to the news of the NSA hacking offline computers worldwide as of yet, but have been known to claim to be victims of such international cyber spying in the past. They have pushed for international legislation to control such spy programs in foreign governments.
By Marisa Corley