The National Security Agency has placed software on nearly 100,000 computers around the world that allows the U.S. to conduct surveillance on those machines using radio frequency technology, The New York Times reported Tuesday.
The secret technology allows the agency to gain access to computers that other countries have tried to protect from spying or cyberattacks, even if they aren't connected to the Internet, The Times reported, citing NSA documents, computer experts and U.S. officials.
The software network could also create a digital highway for launching cyberattacks by transmitting malware, including the kind used in attacks by the U.S. against Iran's nuclear facilities, according to the report.
The NSA describes the effort an "active defense" and has used the technology to monitor units of the Chinese Army, the Russian military, drug cartels, trade institutions inside the European Union, and sometime U.S. partners against terrorism like Saudi Arabia, India and Pakistan, the Times reported.
Among the most frequent targets of the NSA and U.S. Cyber Command, the Times reported, has been the Chinese Army. The United States has accused the Chinese Army of launching regular attacks on American industrial and military targets, often to steal secrets or intellectual property. When Chinese attackers have placed similar software on computer systems of American companies or government agencies, American officials have protested, the newspaper reported.
The Times reported that the technology, used by the agency for several years, relies on radio waves that can be transmitted from tiny circuit boards and USB cards inserted covertly into the computers. The NSA said that the technology has not been used in computers in the U.S.
NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines told Fox News in a written statement that any implication that the agency's programs are "arbitrary and unconstrained" are false.
"NSA's activities are focused and specifically deployed against -- and only against -- valid foreign intelligence targets in response to intelligence requirements," she said. "In addition, we do not use foreign intelligence capabilities to steal the trade secrets of foreign companies on behalf of -- or give intelligence we collect to -- U.S. companies to enhance their international competitiveness or increase their bottom line."
Parts of the program have been disclosed in documents leaked by Edward Snowden, the former NSA systems analyst, the Times reported. A Dutch newspaper published the map showing where the United States has inserted spy software, sometimes with the help of local authorities. Der Spiegel, a German newsmagazine, published information about the NSA's hardware products that can secretly transmit and receive signals from computers, according to the Times.
A 2008 map leaked by Snowden lists 20 programs to gain access to fiber-optic cables described as "covert, clandestine or cooperative large accesses." The same map indicates that the U.S. had already conducted “more than 50,000 worldwide implants,” the report said.
The Times said that it withheld some of those details, at the request of U.S. intelligence officials, when it reported in summer 2012 on American cyberattacks on Iran.
A senior U.S. official, who compared the effort to submarine warfare, told the Times most of the implants are intended only for surveillance and can warn the U.S. about incoming cyberattacks.
“That is what the submarines do all the time,” the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told the newspaper. “They track the adversary submarines.” In cyberspace, he said, the U.S. tries “to silently track the adversaries while they’re trying to silently track you.”
China's ministries of Defense and Foreign Affairs did not immediately respond to faxed queries seeking comment on the article. Chinese officials in the past have stressed that China is a victim of international cyber-espionage and have pushed for international coordination on controlling such espionage.
Zhu Feng, an international security expert at Peking University, said: "Those spying activities show that the U.S. 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 coordination from the international community."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.