America’s National Security Agency (NSA) has been using secret technology to “enter and alter data in computers” even when they are not connected to the internet, according to reports from the New York Times.
Documents given to the paper by whistleblower and ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden say that intelligence agency has infiltrated more than 100,000 computers worldwide by fitting them with covert devices.
These devices can take the form of tiny circuit boards or USB sticks and are inserted into computers either by spies, manufactures or unwitting users. They can then transmit information back and forth with nearby brief-case sized relay stations.
The method is significant as it allows the NSA to circumvent one of the most effective methods used to secure computers against spying and cyberattack: simply disconnecting them from the internet.
The New York Times reports that there is “no evidence” that the technology has been used within the USA, and that these operations act as an “active defence” against foreign cyber threats such as the Chinese.
The program – code-named Quantum – has also been used against “Russian military networks and systems used by the Mexican police and drug cartels, trade institutions inside the European Union, and sometime partners against terrorism like Saudi Arabia, India and Pakistan.”
An anonymous senior official from the US Cyber Command told the paper that these devices were used as an early warning system for cyberattacks, comparing the program with submarine warfare and saying the US tries “to silently track the adversaries while they’re trying to silently track you.”
Meanwhile, President Obama will announce this Friday which recommendations he will be accepting from an advisory panel investigating the methods of the NSA.
The Times report that restrictions on the collection of bulk telephone data will be included in the briefing, and that it is also being recommended that the exploitation of flaws in American software should be banned except in extreme cases.