The NSA has new ways to see inside your computer

A programmer writes computer code.

What is the National Security Agency monitoring now? Think: nearly 100,000 computers around the world – whether they’re connected to the internet or not.

"There is a good subset of computers that are walled off from the internet, completely isolated. And those are usually the computers that the NSA wants to get into most," says David Sanger, national security correspondent for the New York Times, explaining his report in the Times today.

German newsmagazine Der Spiegel recently published a catalog of tools developed by an NSA division called ANT. Among other strategies, ANT uses small radio transceivers to monitor and even control personal computers. The transceivers are either installed into the computer – usually during transit from the factory –  or through thumb drives. Once the software has been installed, the NSA is able to see inside the computer. Some believe they have used the tcomputers in to cyber weapons or to turn the computer into a cyber-weapon. The Stuxnet attack on the Iranian nuclear enrichment site is believed to have been carried out through such means.

Sanger reports the NSA has used the technology for at least the last five years, on allies and enemies alike. Tech companies in the U.S. fear overseas buyers will be wary of buying American products.   

“I think as the year goes on, you’re going to see more and more pressure from Silicon Valley to both trim back these programs and efforts from Silicon Valley to design systems that the NSA can’t penetrate,” he says.

The NSA uses these programs in the name of national security. There is no evidence that the United States is using the ANT technology to steal intellectual property.

“If they had, they probably wouldn’t know which company to give it to. The Chinese know who they’re going to give it to, they’re going to give it to their state owned firms.”

President Obama is expected to address the issue on Friday.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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