The US National Security Agency has implanted secret surveillance software in nearly 100,000 computers around the world to gain access to spy-proof machines.
According to the New York Times, the technology relies on radio waves transmitted through a covert channel by tiny circuit boards and USB cards previously inserted into the computers through a covert channel. The system, sources said, opens a digital highway that can also be used to launch cyber-attacks.
The active defence programme, code-named Quantum, has been in place at least since 2008. The technology was employed to monitor some units of the Chinese Army, the Russian military, drug cartels, trade institution inside the European Union, as well as some of the US partners against terrorism including Saudi Arabia, India and Pakistan. No computers in the USA had been targeted, sources told the New York Times.
While the NSA has planted most of the software through getting access to computer networks, it also managed to gain access to computers not connected to the Internet. A Dutch newspaper has revealed the eavesdropping software had to be installed at times with the help of local authorities. According to The Times, the radio frequency hardware has been in most cases inserted physically, either by a spy, a manufacturer or an unaware user.
Details about the secret NSA hardware products used to transmit and receive signals from computers were also described by German magazine Der Spiegel. The paper also said it withheld some of those details at the request of US intelligence officials in 2012, when reporting on American cyber-attacks on Iran.
The Chinese army has been among the most frequent targets of the NSA, who supposedly placed similar software into Chinese computers as the US accused China of installing into systems of American government agencies and companies.
"NSA's activities are focused and specifically deployed against – and only against – valid foreign intelligence targets in response to intelligence requirements," said NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines.
"We do not use foreign intelligence capabilities to steal the trade secrets of foreign companies on behalf of – or give intelligence we collect to – US companies to enhance their international competitiveness or increase their bottom line."
However, Zhu Feng, an international security expert at Peking University, expressed a different opinion. "Those spying activities show that the US says one thing while doing another thing, and the 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 co-ordination from the international community."
Some of the information came from the documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden while other unnamed sources have also been cited.