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Snowden documents detail NSA ability to spy on “offline” computers

Graphic detailing how the NSA can spy on "offline" computers. (NSA document via New York Times)
Graphic detailing how the NSA can spy on “offline” computers. (NSA document via New York Times)

National Security Agency personnel have the ability to tap into thousands of offline computers using specially-designed software coupled with cover radio waves, according to documents made public by the New York Times on Tuesday.

Using special radio chips embedded on computer hardware, the NSA has the ability to access “offline” computers from miles away, allowing agents to surveil contents of a computer from miles away, even if that computer is not connected to the internet or some other network.

Before a computer can be surveilled offline using the method described by the Times, a spy, manufacturer or “unwitting user” must first implant a radio chip on hardware either inside or used by the computer. According to the Times, this has been on “nearly 100,000 computers around the world.”

The report claims the NSA has been using the technology since 2008 and its targets include computers used by the Chinese and Russian militaries, law enforcement agencies in Mexico and “trade institutions inside the European Union.” In some cases, computers used by American allies in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and India were also exploited.

The Times says there is no evidence that the offline surveillance technology is used within the United States.

The report was based upon classified NSA documents leaked to members of the press by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who fled to Hong Kong last June and is now living somewhere in Russia.

The Snowden documents brought to light several programs, techniques and equipment used by NSA agents for both domestic and foreign surveillance. Those documents have triggered public debate about the scope of NSA surveillance and whether certain programs, such as the agency’s bulk collection of American telephone metadata, violate the civil liberties of American citizens.

New York Times: NSA has ability to surveil “offline” computers
BBC News: Leak says NSA can spy on “offline” computers

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is the publisher of The Desk and reports on the business and policy matters involving the broadcast television, streaming video and radio industries. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, Disney-ABC, Tribune Broadcasting and McNaughton Newspapers. Matthew is based in Northern California, has won numerous awards in the field of journalism, and is a member of IRE (Investigative Reporters and Editors).