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.”