Since at least 2008, the NSA has used a secret channel of radio waves transmitted from covertly installed computer hardware to monitor about 100,000 computers around the world, allowing the spy agency access to the computers even if they aren't connected to the internet.

The hacked computers, in addition to being regularly monitored, could also be used to launch a cyberattack, according to a New York Times article partially based on NSA documents provided by Edward Snowden.

The program, codenamed Quantum, most frequently targets the Chinese Army, who the U.S. has condemned for using similar hacking techniques in the past.

Quantum has also been used against the Russian military, Mexican police groups and drug cartels, and the governments of US allies like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and India. There's no evidence it's been used against targets in the United States.

"What's new here is the scale and the sophistication of the intelligence agency's ability to get into computers and networks to which no one has ever had access before," James Andrew Lewis, the cybersecurity expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told the New York Times.

From the Times:

One [hacking tool], called Cottonmouth I, looks like a normal USB plug but has a tiny transceiver buried in it. According to the catalog, it transmits information swept from the computer "through a covert channel" that allows "data infiltration and exfiltration." Another variant of the technology involves tiny circuit boards that can be inserted in a laptop computer — either in the field or when they are shipped from manufacturers — so that the computer is broadcasting to the N.S.A. even while the computer's user enjoys the false confidence that being walled off from the Internet constitutes real protection.

The relay station it communicates with, called Nightstand, fits in an oversize briefcase, and the system can attack a computer "from as far away as eight miles under ideal environmental conditions." It can also insert packets of data in milliseconds, meaning that a false message or piece of programming can outrace a real one to a target computer. Similar stations create a link between the target computers and the N.S.A., even if the machines are isolated from the Internet.

Not all of this information is new: Some details of the program have been published in German and Dutch papers. And the New York Times claims to have known about at least part of the program since 2012, when it reported on the U.S.-led Stuxnet hacking attack on Iran. The Times said it withheld the information at the request of American intelligence officials.

The NSA, of course, is defending the program.

"N.S.A.'s activities are focused and specifically deployed against — and only against — valid foreign intelligence targets in response to intelligence requirements," Vanee Vines, an agency spokeswoman, 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."

[Image via AP]