NSA Uses Radio Waves to Spy on Offline PCs

Paul Lilly

You can run but you can't hide

Surely by disconnecting your PC from the Internet and bashing your cable modem with a hammer you'll be safe from the prying eyes of the National Security Agency (NSA), right? Wrong. Like a bad sci-fi movie that keeps unveiling unlikely technologies, it's now being reported that the NSA has been using radio waves to tap into offline PCs since at least 2008.

According a report in The New York Times , the NSA installed software on nearly 100,000 computers around the world that allows the U.S. to spy on those machines. Most of the software is inserted by gaining access to computer networks, but the NSA also utilizes a secret technology that allows the organization to alter data in computers even when they're not connected to the internet.

This is where the radio waves come in. The NSA has been listening in on a covert channel of radio waves transmitted from small PCBs and USB cards that are stealthily installed into PCs. Going with the sci-fi movie them, these radio waves are sometimes recorded by relay stations no bigger than a briefcases, which the NSA can install miles away from the target PC, NYT says.

The NSA considers this an "active defense" against cyberattacks, though it's not necessarily easy to implement. Most of the time this sort of thing requires physically installing radio frequency hardware into a target PC, which is usually performed by a spy or manufacturer.

To date, the program (codenamed Quantum) has been successful in inserting radio frequency spying software into Russian military networks and systems used by the Mexican police and drug cartels, trade institutions inside the EU, and anti-terrorist partners.

NYT says there's no evidence that the NSA has used this technology inside the U.S., while an agency spokeswoman added that these activities are "focused and specifically deployed against -- and only against -- valid foreign intelligence targets in response to intelligence requirements."

Image Credit: Flickr (Moondusty)

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