In addition to having its own arsenal of digital weapons, the U.S. National Security Agency reportedly hijacks and repurposes third-party malware.
The NSA is using its network of servers around the world to monitor botnets made up of thousands or millions of infected computers. When needed, the agency can exploit features of those botnets to insert its own malware on the already compromised computers, through a technology codenamed Quantumbot, German new magazine Der Spiegel reported Sunday.
One of the secret documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and published by Der Spiegel contains details about a covert NSA program called DEFIANTWARRIOR that's used to hijack botnet computers and use them as "pervasive network analysis vantage points" and "throw-away non-attributable CNA [computer network attack] nodes."
This means that if a user's computer is infected by cybercriminals with some malware, the NSA might step in, deploy their own malware alongside it and then use that computer to attack other interesting targets. Those attacks couldn't then be traced back to the NSA.
According to the leaked document, this is only done for foreign computers. Bots that are based in the U.S. are reported to the FBI Office of Victim Assistance.
The NSA also intercepts and collects data that is stolen by third-party malware programs, especially those deployed by other foreign intelligence agencies, if it is valuable. It refers to this practice as "fourth party collection."
In 2009, the NSA tracked a Chinese cyberattack against the U.S. Department of Defense and was eventually able to infiltrate the operation. It found that the Chinese attackers were also stealing data from the United Nations so it continued to monitor the attackers while they were collecting internal UN data, Der Spiegel reported.
It goes deeper than that. One leaked secret document contains an NSA worker's account of a case of fifth party collection. It describes how the NSA infiltrated the South Korean CNE (computer network exploitation) program that targeted North Korea.
"We found a few instances where there were NK officials with SK implants on their boxes, so we got on the exfil [data exfiltration] points, and sucked back the data," the NSA staffer wrote in the document. "However, some of the individuals that SK was targeting were also part of the NK CNE program. So I guess that would be the fifth party collect you were talking about."
In other words, the NSA spied on a foreign intelligence agency that was spying on a different foreign intelligence agency that had interesting data of its own.
Sometimes the NSA also uses the servers of unsuspecting third parties as scapegoats, Der Spiegel reported. When exfiltrating data from a compromised system, the data is sent to such servers, but it is then intercepted and collected en route though the NSA's vast upstream surveillance network.
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