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NSA able to target offline computers using radio-waves for surveillance, cyber-attacks

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.”

Quantum targets

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.3
























The NSA’s Spy Catalog (Image from

An NSA advisory panel, ordered and staffed by President Barack  Obama to review NSA practices following the Snowden leaks,   recommended  the spy agency cease exploiting flaws in common software in the  name of US surveillance. The panel also suggested the NSA stop  undermining vital encryption protections.

“Holes in encryption software would be more of a risk to us than  a benefit,” said Richard A. Clarke, a former intel official and  member of the review group. “If we can find the  vulnerability, so can others. It’s more important that we protect  our power grid than that we get into China’s.”

President Obama is scheduled to announce Friday what portions of  the panel’s recommendations he is accepting. Reuters reported  Tuesday that one policy suggestion from the panel received  criticism from an unlikely place recently.

In a letter sent to Obama on behalf of the federal judicial  system as a whole, former federal judge John Bates, the director  of the Administrative Office of the US courts, warned against a  possible “Public Interest Advocate,” which would  represent privacy and civil liberty concerns before the Foreign  Intelligence Surveillance Act court. The secretive FISA court  approves US government spying requests.

  100,000 implants worldwide

A 2008 map, revealed in the Snowden leaks, offers 20 programs to  gain access to major fiber optic cables in the US and places like  Hong Kong and the Middle East. The map indicates that the US has  already conducted “more than 50,000 worldwide implants.”   Though a more recent budget document said that by the end of  2013, the figure would be at around 85,000. A senior officials  told The Times the figure was more like 100,000.

Officials told The Times most of the implants, by far, were for  surveillance and to serve as early warning for a cyber-attack  aimed at the US. One official likened them to buoys used to track  submarines.

The US has targeted a Chinese Army unit thought to be responsible  for most of the bigger cyber-attacks wielded against the US.  Documents from Snowden’s trove show the US has two data centers  in China from which it can insert malware into computers.

The US maintains Quantum is not used for economic purposes, as it  has complained that Chinese attacks have done.

“The argument is not working,” said Peter W. Singer,  co-author of a new book called “Cybersecurity and Cyberwar.”  “To the Chinese, gaining economic advantage is part of national  security. And the Snowden revelations have taken a lot of the  pressure off” the Chinese.

The radio-transmission technology employs many gadgets revealed  by Der Spiegel in December. Among them is Cottonmouth I, a  normal-looking USB plug with a small transceiver that transmits  information from a computer “through a covert channel” that  allows “data infiltration and exfiltration.” Most of the  revealed products are at least five years old, The Times reports,  but have been updated to make the US less dependent on hardware  installation in its surveillance operations.

The NSA would not discuss the devices despite publication of the  documents describing them by the European news outlets.

“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,” said Vines.

Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of US House lawmakers introduced  legislation on Tuesday that would require President Obama to  unveil budget figures for all 16 spy agencies. The secretive   black  budget for US intelligence agencies was reported to  be $53 billion for fiscal year 2013, based on documents from  Snowden reported by The Washington Post.


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