The latest leak from former National Security Agency contractor turned whistleblower Edward Snowden, published by the New York Times on Tuesday, revealed that the NSA has been using old-school technology to spy on offline computers. The NSA has used the secret program, codenamed Quantum, to monitor about 100,000 offline computers around the world.
The report comes just days before President Obama is expected to announce new restrictions on surveillance programs that will curtail the NSA's activities.
With Quantum, the NSA accesses computers through radio waves emitted from a variety of customized devices. One, nicknamed “Cottonmouth I,” is a USB card modified to contain a tiny radio transceiver that can secretly transmit and receive data to and from the computer.
The NSA also used tiny circuit boards installed into laptop computers that broadcast to the agency even when the computer is completely isolated from the Internet. These circuit boards communicate with a briefcase-sized relay station that the NSA calls “Nightstand.” Nightstand can attack a computer from as far as eight miles away and insert packets of data faster than traditional methods, allowing the NSA to deliver false information faster than authentic downloads.
In addition to spying, Quantum helps the NSA to transmit malware to computers and launch coordinated cyberattacks.
Quantum also targets iPhones and network servers. Over time, the NSA has updated the technology to make it easier to access the computer systems without needing physical access.
The reported indicated that the NSA has used this technology in attacks against Iran’s nuclear facilities and to monitor networks in China, Russia, the European Union, Saudi Arabia, India and Pakistan, and those of drug cartels.
When some of those countries, especially China, have installed similar technology on American systems, U.S. defense officials have protested.
Snowden also revealed that the U.S. established two data centers in China tasked with delivering malware to computers. The NSA has argued that this surveillance is for national security, while Chinese hacking is aimed at stealing intellectual property.
The NSA assured that Quantum has not been used on computers in the U.S., but only against foreign intelligence targets.
Other parts of Quantum were leaked by Snowden to various publications. Snowden presented a Dutch newspaper a map that shows where the NSA inserted spy software, and German newsmagazine Der Spiegel published a leak about the hardware that can secretly transmit and receive the radio signals.
President Obama is scheduled to announce changes to the NSA’s practices on Friday. The new rules were based on recommendations from an advisory panel that agreed with Silicon Valley that the NSA programs undermined confidence in American-made tech products. The president is expected to prohibit the NSA’s practice of exploiting software flaws to spy on Americans, end programs designed to break encryption systems and ban the creation of secret access pathways into computer systems.