Sleeper agents are among the most sinister spy assets: they lie in wait, wolves in sheep’s clothing, and then deliver a critical blow when activated. The NSA has 50,000 of those waiting for the literal push of a button, according to the latest batch of leaked Snowden documents, as seen by Dutch daily evening newspaper NRC. But these aren’t people, like Keri Russel and Matthew Rhys in The Americans – these are computers, infected with malware and untroubled by conscience or the risk of going native.
The NSA reportedly infected 50,000 computer networks worldwide with malicious software with the sole aim of harvesting sensitive information it wasn’t privy to, which is basically what you’d call textbook spy work in the digital age, from an agency tasked with spying. That’s not to excuse or dismiss the significance of this revelation, but we’ve heard from the Washington Post previously that the NSA was working on this sort of thing and that at least 20,000 computers had been infected by the program as of 2008. So to hear from Snowden documents via the NRC that it’s now climbed to 50,000 is hardly surprising.
New details brought to light indicate that operations from its so-called “Computer Networks Exploitation” program are active around the world, and can remain active for many years without being detected in some parts of the world like Venezuela and Brazil. All the malware can we watched and controlled remotely, and turned on and off “with a single push of a button.” A New York Times report published yesterday also asserts that the NSA has been pushing to stretch its surveillance powers even further, with the aim of catching up to the spread and reach of digital technology and online communications.
The truly amazing thing about this is just how pedestrian the NSA’s efforts are – according to NRC, they’re essentially running the same kind of phishing scams with false email requests that you’ll see from any other purveyor of malicious software. As an example, NRC points to how the British GCHQ used false LinkedIn pages to lure and infect Belgacom network employees. Just one more good reason to never click on anything sent from anyone ever.
The ongoing NSA debacle is like a Breugel painting, with more and more detail emerging every time you look at it anew. Yahoo and Google’s networks were apparently compromised in a similar fashion, documents revealed in late October, and with up to 200,000 documents in total potentially taken by Snowden and shared with reporters, it’s unlikely we’re anywhere near seeing the whole picture at this point.
The NSA declined to comment on this story or the original report.