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Spy agencies around the world use radio signals to tap data from targeted systems

Jaikumar Vijayan | Jan. 16, 2014
Reports this week that the National Security Agency uses radio signals to collect data from tens of thousands of non-U.S. computers, some not connected to the Internet, is sure to fuel more acrimony towards the U.S. spy agency.

However, experts do note that the collection of information via radio frequency is not new.

In the mid-1980s, Soviet secret police planted electromechanical bugs in numerous electric typewriters at the U.S. embassy in Moscow and its consular office in Leningrad. Like the NSA implants described in the Times story, the Soviet bugs transmitted data using radio waves.

Declassified NSA documents describe how the bugged typewriters allowed the Soviets to access copies of routine memos and classified documents, oftentimes before U.S officials read them.

Between 1976 and 1984, the Soviets installed the bugs on 16 IBM Selectric typewriters. The bugs operated at 30, 60 or 90 Mhz range via radio frequency and were concealed in a metal bar, called the comb supporter, in the typewriters.

The Soviets upgraded the implants several times and eventually completed work on five generations, three that operated on DC power and two on AC power. The bugs could be installed in 30 minutes or less, could be switched on and off remotely and contained integrated circuits that were very advanced for the times, according to the NSA documents. Some had beacons that indicated when the electric typewriters were turned on or off.

The implants were designed to pick up the magnetic energy generated when a typewriter key was struck, convert it into digital electrical signals and transmit it via radio frequency to a nearby Soviet listening post. According to the NSA post-mortem, the bug marked the first time that data was captured in this fashion from a device that held plaintext information.

The discovery of the implants triggered an NSA response, codenamed GUNMAN, that eventually led to the replacement of more than 11 tons of equipment in the offices targeted by the Soviets. It also prompted sweeping changes in U.S. State Department security practices and an overhaul of the U.S. technology and techniques used to detect and respond to electronic threats.

"This was in the 1980s when electric typewriters were the PCs of the day," Pescatore said. "The NSA was also doing the same thing to the Soviets back then — the Soviets were just better at the time."

Schneier added and the NSA "might have a larger budget than anyone else in the world, but they're not made of magic. These are the sorts of techniques that any well funded national intelligence agency would employ and — as they get cheaper — criminals will employ."


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