Keeping your computer off the web may not keep it out of the National Security Agency’s prying gaze — especially if you’re a member of the Chinese military or a drug cartel.
The NSA’s broad surveillance and cyberwarfare capabilities extend to offline computers, servers, smartphones, and other machines through the use of a secret radio technology, reports the New York Times, citing documents obtained from whistleblower Edward Snowden.
The spy agency has reportedly implanted software in “nearly 100,000” computers worldwide that enables it to observe the activity on those machines and create a “digital highway” for launching cyberattacks. While the NSA tapped into most of those computers through the Internet, the agency has increasingly used a “covert channel” of radio waves to access machines that aren’t connected to the web.
That technique requires special hardware: either tiny circuit boards inside the machines (suggesting manufacturer participation) or modified USB plugs, which could be inserted by an NSA agent or an unwitting participant. The transceivers pipe radio signals to equipment operated by field agents, who can be miles away from the target.
The Chinese military is a major target of the program, codenamed Quantum. The NSA and its Pentagon partner, U.S. Cyber Command, have also targeted Russian military networks, Mexican police and drug cartels, and trade institutions inside the European Union, among others.
The NSA has been using the covert radio technology since at least 2008 to breach the “air gap” and gain access to difficult targets, like Iran’s nuclear enrichment plant at Natanz. (You may remember that attack as Stuxnet, the name of the computer worm used to damage Iran’s nuclear centrifuges.)
The Times says it learned about the program in the summer of 2012, when it was investigating American cyberattacks in Iran but withheld some of the details at the request of American intelligence officials. German publication Der Spiegel reported on some aspects of the program in late December, which presumably prompted the Times to publish its own story.
This news comes just days before President Barack Obama is expected to announce major changes to the NSA’s surveillance programs.