N.S.A. Devises Radio Pathway Into Computers


The National Security Agency has implanted software in nearly
100,000 computers around the world that allows the United States 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 N.S.A. 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 N.S.A. documents, computer experts and American

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. In some cases, they
are sent to a briefcase-size relay station that intelligence
agencies can set up miles away from the

The radio frequency technology has
helped solve one of the biggest problems facing American
intelligence agencies for years: getting into computers that
adversaries, and some American partners, have tried to make
impervious to spying or cyberattack. In most cases, the radio
frequency hardware must be physically inserted by a spy, a
manufacturer or an unwitting user. 

The N.S.A.
calls its efforts more an act of “active defense” against foreign
cyberattacks than a tool to go on the offensive. But when Chinese
attackers place similar software on the computer systems of
American companies or government agencies, American officials have
protested, often at the presidential level.

Among the most frequent targets of the
N.S.A. and its Pentagon partner, United
States Cyber Command
, have been units of the Chinese
Army, which the United States has accused of launching regular
digital probes and attacks on American 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 and an N.S.A.
map that indicates sites of what the agency calls “computer network

“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. “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.”

No Domestic Use

There is no evidence that the N.S.A.
has implanted its software or used its radio frequency technology
inside the United States. While refusing to comment on the scope of
the Quantum program, the N.S.A. said its actions were not
comparable to China’s. 

activities are focused and specifically deployed against — and only
against — valid foreign intelligence targets in response to
intelligence requirements,” Vanee Vines, an agency spokeswoman,
said in a statement. “We do not use foreign intelligence
capabilities to steal the trade secrets of foreign companies on
behalf of — or give intelligence we collect to — U.S. companies to
enhance their international competitiveness or increase their
bottom line.”  

Over the past
two months, parts of the program have been disclosed in documents
from the trove leaked by Edward J. Snowden, the former N.S.A.
contractor. A Dutch newspaper published
the map
of areas where the United States has inserted spy
software, sometimes in cooperation with local authorities, often
covertly. Der Spiegel, a German newsmagazine, published
the N.S.A.’s catalog
of hardware products that can
secretly transmit and receive digital signals from computers, a
program called ANT. The New York Times withheld some of those
details, at the request of American intelligence officials, when it
in the summer of 2012, on American cyberattacks on Iran.

President Obama is scheduled to
announce on Friday what recommendations he is accepting from an
advisory panel on changing N.S.A. practices. The panel agreed with
Silicon Valley executives that some of the techniques developed by
the agency to find flaws in computer systems undermine global
confidence in a range of American-made information products like
laptop computers and cloud services.

Embracing Silicon Valley’s critique of
the N.S.A., the panel has recommended banning, except in extreme
cases, the N.S.A. practice of exploiting flaws in common software
to aid in American surveillance and cyberattacks. It also called
for an end to government efforts to weaken publicly available
encryption systems, and said the government should never develop
secret ways into computer systems to exploit them, which sometimes
include software implants.  

Richard A.
Clarke, an official in the Clinton and Bush administrations who
served as one of the five members of the advisory panel, explained
the group’s reasoning in an email last week, saying that “it is
more important that we defend ourselves than that we attack

“Holes in encryption software would be
more of a risk to us than a benefit,” he said, adding: “If we can
find the vulnerability, so can others. It’s more important that we
protect our power grid than that we get into

From the earliest days of the Internet,
the N.S.A. had little trouble monitoring traffic because a vast
majority of messages and searches were moved through servers on
American soil. As the Internet expanded, so did the N.S.A.’s
efforts to understand its geography. A program named Treasure Map
tried to identify nearly every node and corner of the web, so that
any computer or mobile device that touched it could be located.

A 2008 map, part of the Snowden trove,
notes 20 programs to gain access to big fiber-optic cables — it
calls them “covert, clandestine or cooperative large accesses” —
not only in the United States but also in places like Hong Kong,
Indonesia and the Middle East. The same map indicates that the
United States had already conducted “more than 50,000 worldwide
implants,” and a more recent budget document said that by the end
of last year that figure would rise to about 85,000. A senior
official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the actual
figure was most likely closer to

That map suggests how the United States
was able to speed ahead with implanting malicious software on the
computers around the world that it most wanted to monitor — or
disable before they could be used to launch a cyberattack.

A Focus on

In interviews, officials and experts
said that a vast majority of such implants are intended only for
surveillance and serve as an early warning system for cyberattacks
directed at the United States. 

“How do you
ensure that Cyber Command people” are able to look at “those that
are attacking us?” a senior official, who compared it to submarine
warfare, asked in an interview several months ago.

“That is what the submarines do all the
time,” said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to
describe policy. “They track the adversary submarines.” In
cyberspace, he said, the United States tries “to silently track the
adversaries while they’re trying to silently track

If tracking subs was a Cold War
cat-and-mouse game with the Soviets, tracking malware is a pursuit
played most aggressively with the

The United States has targeted Unit
61398, the Shanghai-based Chinese Army unit
believed to
be responsible for many of the biggest cyberattacks on the United
States, in an effort to see attacks being prepared. With
Australia’s help, one N.S.A. document suggests, the United States
has also focused on another specific Chinese Army unit.

Documents obtained by Mr. Snowden
indicate that the United States has set up two data centers in
China — perhaps through front companies — from which it can insert
malware into computers. When the Chinese place surveillance
software on American computer systems — and they have, on systems
like those at the Pentagon and at The Times — the United States
usually regards it as a potentially hostile act, a possible prelude
to an attack. Mr. Obama laid out America’s complaints about those
practices to President Xi Jinping of China in a long session at a
summit meeting in California last June.

At that session, Mr. Obama tried to
differentiate between conducting surveillance for national security
— which the United States argues is legitimate — and conducting it
to steal intellectual property. 

“The argument
is not working,” said Peter W. Singer of the Brookings Institution,
a co-author of a new book called “Cybersecurity and Cyberwar.” “To
the Chinese, gaining economic advantage is part of national
security. And the Snowden revelations have taken a lot of the
pressure off” the Chinese. Still, the United States has banned the
sale of computer servers from a major Chinese manufacturer, Huawei,
for fear that they could contain technology to penetrate American

An Old

The N.S.A.’s efforts to reach computers
unconnected to a network have relied on a century-old technology
updated for modern times: radio transmissions.

In a catalog produced by the agency
that was part of the Snowden documents released in Europe, there
are page after page of devices using technology that would have
brought a smile to Q, James Bond’s technology supplier.

One, called Cottonmouth I, looks like a
normal USB plug but has a tiny transceiver buried in it. According
to the catalog, it transmits information swept from the computer
“through a covert channel” that allows “data infiltration and
exfiltration.” Another variant of the technology involves tiny
circuit boards that can be inserted in a laptop computer — either
in the field or when they are shipped from manufacturers — so that
the computer is broadcasting to the N.S.A. even while the
computer’s user enjoys the false confidence that being walled off
from the Internet constitutes real

The relay station it communicates with,
called Nightstand, fits in an oversize briefcase, and the system
can attack a computer “from as far away as eight miles under ideal
environmental conditions.” It can also insert packets of data in
milliseconds, meaning that a false message or piece of programming
can outrace a real one to a target computer. Similar stations
create a link between the target computers and the N.S.A., even if
the machines are isolated from the Internet.

Computers are not the only targets.
Dropoutjeep attacks iPhones. Other hardware and software are
designed to infect large network servers, including those made by
the Chinese. 

Most of those code names and products
are now at least five years old, and they have been updated, some
experts say, to make the United States less dependent on physically
getting hardware into adversaries’ computer systems.

The N.S.A. refused to talk about the
documents that contained these descriptions, even after they were
published in Europe.  

“Continuous and
selective publication of specific techniques and tools used by
N.S.A. to pursue legitimate foreign intelligence targets is
detrimental to the security of the United States and our allies,”
Ms. Vines, the N.S.A. spokeswoman,

But the Iranians and others discovered
some of those techniques years ago. The hardware in the N.S.A.’s
catalog was crucial in the cyberattacks on Iran’s nuclear
facilities, code-named Olympic Games, that began around 2008 and
proceeded through the summer of 2010, when a technical error
revealed the attack software, later called Stuxnet. That was the
first major test of the technology.

One feature of the Stuxnet attack was
that the technology the United States slipped into Iran’s nuclear
enrichment plant at Natanz was able to map how it operated, then
“phone home” the details. Later, that equipment was used to insert
malware that blew up nearly 1,000 centrifuges, and temporarily set
back Iran’s program. 

But the Stuxnet
strike does not appear to be the last time the technology was used
in Iran. In 2012, a unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps
moved a rock near the country’s underground Fordo nuclear
enrichment plant. The rock exploded and spewed broken circuit
boards that the Iranian news media described as “the remains of a
device capable of intercepting data from computers at the plant.”
The origins of that device have never been

On Sunday, according to the
semiofficial Fars news agency, Iran’s Oil Ministry issued another
warning about possible cyberattacks, describing a series of
defenses it was erecting — and making no mention of what are
suspected of being its own attacks on Saudi Arabia’s largest oil

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