According to recent reports by Dutch daily evening newspaper NRC Handelsblad, the US National Security Agency (NSA) has hacked into more than 50,000 computer networks over the course of last year, infecting them with malware and viruses used to transform computers into ‘digital sleeper agents’ that can be activated remotely by the US government to steal data from millions of people at the push of a button.
The top secret programme was discovered in one of the more than 200,000 documents revealed by Edward Snowden, and is likely to be only the tip of the iceberg. Surprisingly, we now find that the NSA has even stooped to the level of email phishing scams and spreading common computer viruses in their increasingly evident quest to get their hands on every last computer in the world.
Termed Computer Network Exploitation, or CNE, the NSA’s operation in this case includes “enabling actions and intelligence collection via computer networks that exploit data gathered from target or enemy information systems or networks.”
CNE operations are conducted by the Tailored Access Operations unit, a team of over 1,000 hackers possibly composed of former criminals and scammers, and has carried out hacking and virus-spreading operations in such diverse locations as Brazil, Russia, and China. Once a computer network has been infected with the NSA’s malware, it begins to function as a digital sleeper cell that can remain undetected for years, and activated at the flip of a switch.
An especially disturbing instance of this practice has been reported by the Dutch media, where the NSA attacked Belgacom, a telecommunications company in Belgium, setting up fake versions of the LinkedIn homepage and using them to redirect and intercept traffic from countless Belgian internet users. This practise follows the MO of a previous NSA attack, reported by The Libertarian, which used fake versions of the Google homepage to trap US internet users.
However, the documents also reveal that this is apparently not enough for the agency. In a document leaked to the New York Times which summarises the agency’s strategy for Obama’s second term in office, they complain that the law keeps getting in the way of doing what they want.
To be effective, the NSA claimed, “legal, policy and process authorities must be as adaptive and dynamic as the technological and operational advances we seek to exploit.”
We can only hope that legislators will act decisively before that happens.