As of this writing, the NSA has worked its way into around 100,000 personal computers and mobile devices around the world, a far cry from the 50,000 we initially reported on just a few short months ago.
Dubbed “Quantum“, the program lays out an intricate map of each infected machine, which networks it’s connected to, and who the users are that depend on it to manage their daily communications. Any information gathered on these computers can then be plucked straight out of the air via radio frequency, a feat previously thought impossible in all but the strictest of controlled laboratory settings.
“The radio frequency technology has helped solve one of the biggest problems facing American intelligence agencies for years: getting into computers that adversaries, and some American partners, have tried to make impervious to spying or cyberattack,” the newspaper said. “In most cases, the radio frequency hardware must be physically inserted by a spy, a manufacturer or an unwitting user.”
Although the technique is feasible for general use among a variety of systems and users, the primary target for these operations have been specific members and regiments of the Chinese Army. Other unwitting victims of the effort include Russian military networks, desktops used by the Mexican police/cartels, trade partners in the EU, and sometimes even good old fashioned terrorists residing in countries like India, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan.
Both senior officials and anonymous whistleblowers can agree that despite what it looks like, the map of infected computers that the NSA built was primarily maintained under the guise of “defense first”. Meant to serve as sort of an early warning system, the network would be able to alert the agency whenever someone searched hot terms or emailed suspected terrorists from a device that had the spying software installed. This would then give them a head-start on any attacks that might be headed for the homeland, and, at least in theory, prevent the “next 9/11”.
Granted, the Chinese have been caught, if you’ll pardon the pun, “red-handed” before when attempting to set up collection programs on the networks of the Pentagon and the New York times, so it’s not to suggest that these efforts are entirely unwarranted or unprovoked. This is a mild source of justification for the actions of the NSA, however it in no way absolves them of the clear abuse of power that has consumed their ranks in the few short years since these programs and others like them have been active in the field.