The National Security Agency has implanted software in about 100,000 computers around the world, allowing the United States to surveil those machines while creating a trail that can be used to launch cyber-attacks.
Though most of the software is installed by gaining access to computer networks, the NSA can also employ technology that enters computers and alters data without needing internet access.
The secret technology uses covert radio waves transmitted from small circuit boards and USB cards clandestinely inserted into targeted computers, The New York Times reported. The waves can then be sent to a briefcase-sized relay station intelligence agencies can set up just miles away, according to NSA documents, computer experts and US officials.
The radio frequency technology - which often needs to be physically inserted by a spy, manufacturer or unwitting user - has helped US spies access computers that global adversaries have gone to great lengths to protect from surveillance or cyber-attack.
The NSA calls use of the infiltration software and radio technology - all part of a program known as Quantum - “active defense” against cyber-attacks, though it has condemned use of similar software by Chinese attackers against American companies or government agencies.
“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,” James Andrew Lewis, cyber security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told The Times. “Some of these capabilities have been around for a while, but the combination of learning how to penetrate systems to insert software and learning how to do that using radio frequencies has given the U.S. a window it’s never had before.”
The Chinese Army has been the most frequent target of Quantum. The US has accused the Chinese Army of infiltrating American industrial and military targets to often pilfer secrets or intellectual property.
Other Quantum targets include Russian military networks, systems used by Mexican police and drug cartels, trade institutions within the European Union and even allies like Saudi Arabia, according to American officials and NSA materials that show sites that the agency calls “computer network exploitation.”
There is no evidence that Quantum’s capabilities were used in the US. While not commenting on the scope of the program, the NSA said Quantum is not comparable to actions by the Chinese.
“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, said in a statement. “We do not use foreign intelligence capabilities to steal the trade secrets of foreign companies on behalf of — or give intelligence we collect to — U.S. companies to enhance their international competitiveness or increase their bottom line.”
Parts of Quantum were revealed by documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. A Dutch newspaper published a map indicating where the US had inserted spy software, usually in secret. Der Spiegel recently published the NSA’s collection of hardware products used for transmitting and receiving digital signals from computers, known as ANT.