WASHINGTON — The National Security Agency has implanted software in nearly 100,000 computers around the world that allows the U.S. to conduct surveillance on those machines and can also create a digital highway for launching cyberattacks.
While most of the software is inserted by gaining access to computer networks, the NSA has increasingly made use of a secret technology that enables it to enter and alter data in computers even if they are not connected to the Internet, according to NSA documents, computer experts and U.S. officials. The technology, which the agency has used since at least 2008, relies on a covert channel of radio waves that can be transmitted from tiny circuit boards and USB cards inserted surreptitiously into the computers.
The radio frequency technology has helped solve one of the biggest problems facing U.S. intelligence agencies for years: getting into computers that adversaries, and some U.S. partners, have tried to make impervious to spying or cyberattack.
The NSA calls its efforts more an act of “active defense” against foreign cyberattacks than a tool to go on the offensive.
Among the most frequent targets of the NSA and its Pentagon partner, U.S. Cyber Command, have been units of the Chinese army, which the U.S. has accused of launching regular digital probes and attacks on U.S. industrial and military targets, usually to steal secrets or intellectual property. But the program, code-named Quantum, has also been successful in inserting software into 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, according to officials.
“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,” said James Andrew Lewis, the cybersecurity expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. There is no evidence that the NSA has implanted its software or used its radio frequency technology inside the U.S.
President Barack Obama is scheduled to announce on Friday what recommendations he is accepting from an advisory panel on changing NSA practices.