The National Security Agency has sneaked spy software into nearly 100,000 computers worldwide, sometimes by radio waves, the New York Times reported Wednesday.
No evidence suggests the intelligence agency has implanted its secret software or used its radio frequency technology inside the United States, the Times said, citing NSA documents, U.S. officials and computer experts.
But in its overseas operations, the secret software not only provides surveillance intelligence but can also create a digital avenue for launching cyberattacks, the newspaper said.
Most of the software is inserted by gaining access to computer networks, but the NSA increasingly uses a secret program, code-named Quantum, that lets it enter and alter computer data even if those computers are not connected to the Internet, the documents indicate and officials and experts said.
The technology, which the NSA has had for five years, relies on a covert channel of radio waves that can be transmitted from tiny circuit boards and USB cards secretly inserted into computers.
The radio frequency hardware must usually be physically inserted by a spy, a manufacturer or an unwitting user, the Times said.
The biggest Quantum target is China's army, which the Obama administration has accused of launching regular digital probes and attacks on U.S. military and industrial targets, usually to steal secrets or intellectual property.
But Quantum has also secretly loaded software into Russian military networks and computer systems used by Mexico's police and drug cartels, the Times said.
Other targets include EU trade groups and periodic counter-terrorism partners including Saudi Arabia, India and Pakistan, the officials said and an NSA map indicates.
The map shows sites of what the NSA calls "computer network exploitation."
"Some of these capabilities have been around for a while," cybersecurity expert James Andrew Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank told the Times.
"But the combination of learning how to penetrate systems to insert software and learning how to do that using radio frequencies has given the U.S. a window it's never had before," he said.
The NSA refused to comment on the Quantum program's scope.
But an agency spokeswoman said the NSA actions were far different from to those of China.
"NSA's activities are focused and specifically deployed against -- and only against -- valid foreign intelligence targets in response to intelligence requirements," spokeswoman Vanee Vines said in a statement.
"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," she said.
President Obama is scheduled to announce Friday what recommendations he is accepting from an advisory panel on changing NSA practices.