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NSA reportedly using radio waves to tap offline computers

Spy agency uses covert channel of radio waves to access and alter data on non-Internet-connected computers, the New York Times reports.

Steven Musil Night Editor / News
Steven Musil is the night news editor at CNET News. He's been hooked on tech since learning BASIC in the late '70s. When not cleaning up after his daughter and son, Steven can be found pedaling around the San Francisco Bay Area. Before joining CNET in 2000, Steven spent 10 years at various Bay Area newspapers.
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Steven Musil
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Headquarters of the NSA at Fort Meade, Maryland. NSA

The National Security Agency is using secret wireless technology that allows it to access and alter data on computers, even when they are not connected to the Internet, according to a New York Times report.

Since 2008, the agency has been increasingly using a "covert channel of radio waves" that can transmit from hardware installed in the computers, according to NSA documents and experts interviewed by the Times. Signals can then be sent to briefcase-size relay stations miles away, according to the report.

The NSA has also installed surveillance software on nearly 100,000 computers around the world, according to the Times. The newspaper said the Chinese Army was a frequent target of such technology but said there was no evidence that the agency used either technology inside the US.

Repeating earlier denials that its data collection activities are arbitrary or unconstrained, the NSA rejected any comparison to Chinese attackers who have been accused to planting similar software on computers belonging to US companies and government agencies.

"NSA's activities are focused and specifically deployed against -- and only against -- valid foreign intelligence targets in response to intelligence requirements," the NSA said in a statement. "In addition, 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."

The surveillance agency also asserted that a complex web of laws, regulations, and policies governed its use of such tools and that "continuous and selective publication" of the agency's techniques was "detrimental to the security of the United States and our allies."

Last month, a Der Spiegel report detailed how the agency's Office of Tailored Access Operations intercepts deliveries of electronic equipment to plant spyware to gain remote access to the systems once they are delivered and installed. According to that report, the NSA has planted backdoors to access computers, hard drives, routers, and other devices from companies such as Cisco, Dell, Western Digital, Seagate, Maxtor, Samsung, and Huawei.

The German news magazine also described a 50-page product catalog of tools and techniques used by a program called ANT, which stands for Advanced or Access Network Technology, to send and receive signals to devices.

President Obama is expected to announce on Friday the changes to the NSA he is expected to adopt based on recommendations from a presidential task force. The panel, which was appointed by President Obama in the wake of disclosures made this summer by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, has reportedly proposed stricter standards for NSA data searches and that a third party be responsible for storing phone records collected by the agency.