NSA's secret radio technology can spy on your computer even when offline

Washington : DC : USA | Jan 15, 2014 at 3:42 AM PST
 
 
 
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Classified National Security Agency documents, part of the Snowden cache, reveal that under a top-secret program called "Quantum," the NSA and the Pentagon's United States Cyber Command have implanted special software and devices into about 100,000 computers around the world, which allow the spy agencies to monitor users' activities and launch cyberattacks even on offline computers.

According to the leaked documents and US officials who spoke on the matter, the software is usually implanted into the target machine through access to networks.

However, since 2008 the NSA has also devised a method through which it is able to access machines that are not connected to the Internet as part of a program called ANT.

The technology uses radio waves transmitted from small circuit boards or USB cards secretly inserted into the computer either by an operative, the manufacturer on behalf of NSA, or even by the unwary user himself.

The radio waves can be picked up by a portable relay station set up miles away from the target machine.

US intelligence officials say that the method has helped to extend surveillance reach.

The method has been used successfully to target the Chinese military, sources toldThe New York Times.

However, critics note that in the past when the Chinese launched similar attacks on US agencies and companies, the US government issued angry protests.

In obscurantist double-talk typical of national security agencies, NSA defends its program, saying it is not like the Chinese one because it is based on a principle of "active defense" against "valid foreign intelligence targets" and that it is not being used for "offensive" purposes.

According to NSA spokesperson Vanee Vines, "We do not use foreign intelligence capabilities to steal trade secrets... to enhance international competitiveness [of US companies] or increase their bottom line."

The US has accused the Chinese military of launching "offensive" attacks on US companies and military with the intention of stealing state secrets and intellectual property while characterizing its own activities as "active defense," conducted primarily as part of efforts to develop early warning surveillance systems.

NSA documents show that US spy agencies have focused on Chinese Army units, such as Unit 61398, believed to have carried out several major attacks on the US.

The NSA documents show that the US has "data centers" in China through which it inserts malware into Chinese computers.

It is believed that the Chinese have also successfully implanted surveillance software on Pentagon systems and The New York Times, prompting complaints by President Barack Obama to President Xi Jingping of China when the two leaders met in California last year.

However, it is unlikely that the Chinese will agree with Obama's self-serving efforts to distinguish between stealing intellectual property and spying as part of "legitimate" national security program.

Peter Singer, an expert at the Brookings Institution, said: "To the Chinese, gaining economic advantage is part of national security."

The New York Times reports that information obtained from US officials and NSA documents show that under its "active defense" program, the US has successfully implanted software into Chinese, Russian, Saudi Arabian, Indian, Pakistani, Mexican military and security networks.

The US has also been able to penetrate networks of Mexican drug cartels and EU trade institutions.

Recently, a Dutch paper published a map showing countries where US spy agencies have implanted spy software into computers, in some cases with assistance from local authorities.

Der Spiegel also published a list of computer hardware into which the NSA implants tiny transceivers which transmit signals from offline computers to a field station miles away.

The new revelations come ahead of an announcement by Obama on advisory panel recommendations that his administration would implement as part of its efforts to review NSA spying activities and practices.

One of the major concerns that American companies and Silicon Valley executives have expressed is that disclosures about US agencies exploiting US telecoms infrastructure and products to spy on foreign countries and nationals undermine global confidence in US-manufactured products and services.

Foreign governments could be forced to ban sale of information products from US companies out of fear that they are being implanted with technology to spy on them.

In response to these concerns the advisory panel has recommend prohibiting NSA from taking advantage of US made information products to launch cyberattacks or carry out surveillance.

The advisory panel also called on the NSA to stop trying to compromise public encryption systems.

According to Richard A. Clarke, member of the advisory panel who served in two previous administrations, "It’s more important that we protect our power grid than that we get into China’s."

But the recommendation raises the question, at least from the NSA perspective, about how to continue its spying activities which rely heavily on the methods the advisory council is suggesting it should give up.

The advisory panel's recommendation that NSA should refocus on defense rather than offense represents a major paradigm shift that the agency may find difficult to implement given the decades of investment in methods that are primarily "offensive" in nature being designed to spy on adversaries rather than merely defend from being spied on.

NSA officials point out that its Quantum program through which the agency has implanted spyware into more than 100,000 computers worldwide could be interpreted from another perspective as offensive although it is a program for "active defense" which equips the agency with early warning capabilities to ward off cyberattacks against the US.

JOHNTHOMAS DIDYMUS is based in Lagos, Lagos, Nigeria, and is an Anchor for Allvoices.
 
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