The latest secret National Security Agency Surveillance program leaked by former contractor Edward Snowden reveal the agency has infected nearly 100,000 computers with software that allows them to hack and conduct cyber attacks via radio waves.
The New York Times reports the agency installs the majority of its software by infiltrating computer networks, but also makes use of a secret technology that gives the agency the ability to manipulate data on computers not connected to the Internet.
A hardware program called ANT uses small circuit boards and USB devices physically inserted into computers by manufacturers, spies or unwitting users to send and receive signals on a secret radio channel to and from briefcase-size transmitters from miles away.
The surveillance program, code-named Quantum, has been described by the NSA and U.S. Cyber Command as a defense against Chinese government hackers, who have successfully infiltrated U.S. networks to steal sensitive proprietary information about defense technology and other patents increasingly over the past few years.
The technology has also been used against Russian, Saudi Arabian, Indian and Pakistani military networks, according to an agency map labeled “computer network exploitation.” None of the documents indicate such surveillance tactics have been used within the United States.
“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,” cybersecurity expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington James Andrew Lewis 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 signals intelligence agency said in a statement it only surveils foreign intelligence targets for the purpose of defense, not to steal technology for U.S. government or business use like the Chinese.
A report released last month by the White House team tasked with examining NSA protocols and recommending changes in the wake of other widespread spying programs leaked by Snowden suggested closing down programs like ANT and Quantum, because they take advantage of network security weaknesses and make the Internet less secure as a result.
President Barack Obama will announce on Friday which of those recommendations he will be implementing.