NSA Uses Radio Waves To Spy On International Computers
January 15, 2014

NSA Uses Radio Waves To Spy On International Computers

Enid Burns for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

The National Security Agency (NSA) is doing more than monitoring email, cell phone calls and internet browsing. The US agency has infiltrated around 100,000 computers outside of the United States to monitor activities, and uses radio waves to retrieve data from those systems.

Radio waves are a "secret technology" used by the NSA, The New York Times reports. The agency has increasingly made use of the technology to enter and alter data on computers, even computers not connected to the Internet. This most recent information is according to NSA documents, computer experts and American officials, the Times said.

"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 target," the Times article said.

American intelligence agencies have been able to use the technology to get information from computers that are not online, "getting into computers that adversaries, and some American partners, have tried to make impervious to spying or cyberattack," the Times article said.

One challenge is that the radio frequency hardware needs to be physically installed on the computer. This can be done by a spy, a manufacturer, or a user - even without knowledge.

In the past there have been concerns about Lenovo computers after a Chinese company bought the computer manufacturing unit from IBM. Some were worried that the manufacturer could install hardware that would report back to the company, or the Chinese government. Lenovo turned around and invited US investigations to ensure that its computers were shipped without such hardware or software built into its machines.

The US believes it has some justification, even if it is wary of other countries doing the same, USA Today reports. "The agency describes its efforts as part of an 'active defense' against foreign cyberattacks rather than an offensive tool. But U.S. officials have protested when similar software was discovered to have been placed on computers in this country by Chinese attackers," the USA Today article said.

The technology and tactics have aided US government agencies in efforts to uncover secrets.

“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,” James Andrew Lewis, a cybersecurity expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, 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.”

While the NSA maintains this type of spying is only geared toward overseas computers, there is potential for such technologies and practices to be used in the US as well. It is also likely that the US government would take issue if the tables were turned, and the technology was used in the US on behalf of another country's government.