The simplest way to avoid attacks and exploitations in the modern connected world is often just to pull the plug. When it comes to the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), just pulling the plug isn't enough, according to new details published this week.
In a Jan. 14 New York Times report that was based on information from whistleblower Edward Snowden, new information is revealed about the NSA's ability to remotely connect to a target computer without an Internet connection.
That's right, folks. You don't have to be connected to the Internet to be exploited.
According to the report, the NSA leverages covert radio channels to exfiltrate data from target machines as well as inject malicious code. The target machines first are compromised by way of a USB stick or tiny circuit board that broadcasts the information.
Stepping aside for a moment from any potential misuse of this technology that violates the individual rights of Americans, or anyone else, this is an amazing development that makes a lot of sense.
A good standard best practice in many IT organizations is for some kind of data-loss prevention (DLP) technology that monitors data as it leaves the network. With this new remote access radio technology, data isn't exactly leaving over the monitored Internet network, so a DLP solution that is tethered to the Internet wouldn't block the data.
This isn't just radio as in WiFi either since WiFi, after all, is still network traffic with an IP address. Regular WiFi is also limited in range typically to a maximum of 600 feet or so, meaning that if an operative wanted to get the data, he or she would have to be relatively close (and likely also within harm's way).
The geniuses at the NSA with the remote radio access technology have extended the range to a staggering 8 miles.
According to The Times report, the radio-based data exfiltration technology has not been used in domestic surveillance activities within the United States.
One target that the technology likely was used on was Iran. For years, people have speculated about how the Stuxnet malware got into Iran and helped derail that nation's nuclear weapons ambitions. The prevailing theory has long been that the United States, likely aided by the State of Israel and its Mossad intelligence agency, created Stuxnet and somehow got it into Iran's nuclear enrichment plant.
It seems likely that remote access radio technology was used in that case. If that is true, and this newly reported NSA technology was critical in preventing Iran from building a nuclear weapon, then this technology (with the proper oversight) is an immensely valuable tool in the arsenal of freedom.
Sadly, thanks to the Snowden leaks, we do know that the width and breadth of the spying activities are immense. It's also clear that some kind of reform is needed, and thankfully that reform is likely coming soon. On Dec. 18, a presidential task force issued a report providing 46 recommendations to overhaul U.S. surveillance activities. President Obama is expected to comment and respond to the report this week.
Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and InternetNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.