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Summary:

The New York Times has published further details of the NSA’s targeted surveillance techniques, including their alleged use as an “early warning system” against online attacks from the Chinese military.

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The U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) and the Pentagon have inserted software and hardware “implants” into nearly 100,000 computers around the world, according to a report in the New York Times late Tuesday.

Most of this effort appears  involve surreptitiously sticking surveillance software into target PCs via the network, but some of it involved physical access. It’s hard to remotely target a so-called “air-gapped” computer that has no network access, so the NSA also uses small radio transceivers when it can, either in a tiny circuit board (which would suggest manufacturer involvement) or hidden in a USB plug. The transceivers communicate with equipment held by an NSA field operative, who can be up to 8 miles away.

These techniques were already revealed in a series of stories in Der Spiegel at the end of last year (that included the above picture). However, although it’s vague on the split between software and physical implants, the NYT story does add a sense of scale, along with a few other interesting details:

  • The NYT knew about some of this back in the summer of 2012 – a year before the Snowden revelations began – when it reported on U.S. attacks against Iranian nuclear facilities. However, it withheld the information “at the request of American intelligence officials”.
  • The Chinese military is a major target, particularly the elements that conduct “cyber-attacks”. Official sources told the NYT that these implants are generally used to detect incoming threats.
  • The U.S. “set up two data centers in China – perhaps through front companies – from which it can insert malware into computers.”

That last bit apparently comes from the Snowden documents, and to be honest, even though it doesn’t name names or locations, I feel a bit squeamish about its revelation. That said, given the amount of interaction the writers of the piece clearly had with senior sources in the NSA and U.S. military, I would hope that anyone who might worry as a result of publication had plenty of warning.

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  1. Our “spying activities are being conducted in an irregular way without rules. Other countries may follow suit, leading to a fierce arms race on the Internet. So, it is time to set up rules and regulations in cyberspace with coordination from the international community.”

  2. You can regulate all you want. The intelligence services will keep spying and gathering information. There is a fine line between what is right and wrong. The issue is even if we(USA) regulate the rest of the world will not. We have enemies, As stupid as it is in this day of age there are still people who want to do harm to people. Without the Intelligence community these people would go unchecked. The technology in this is so innovative too, Just remember, rules only work if everyone plays by them.

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