This just in from the Edward Snowden vault of government secrets: The National Security Agency is breaking into “potentially millions of computers worldwide” and infecting them with malware “implants” as part of an effort that is increasingly relying on automated systems and not human oversight, according to a First Look Media report published Wednesday.
And the NSA is pretending to be Facebook to get the job done.
“In some cases the NSA has masqueraded as a fake Facebook server, using the social-media site as a launching pad to infect a target’s computer and exfiltrate files from a hard drive,” First Look reported on Glenn Greenwald’s Intercept channel, citing a classified slide presentation from 2009. “In others, it has sent out spam emails laced with the malware, which can be tailored to covertly record audio from a computer’s microphone and take snapshots with its webcam. The hacking systems have also enabled the NSA to launch cyberattacks by corrupting and disrupting file downloads or denying access to websites.”
As part of the “industrial-scale exploitation,” the agency is leveraging Facebook’s global appeal to trick targets into logging in to a doppelganger version of the site, a technique dubbed “Quantumhand.”
“If this report is accurate, the NSA is acting like a spambot,” said Harley Geiger, senior counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology. “The use of malware implants should be targeted against specific threats in tightly controlled situations, but this kind of mass automated surveillance would put countless Internet users at risk.”
First Look‘s report details how the NSA was able to trick target computers by transmitting “malicious data packets” that disguise it as the real Facebook, a process illustrated in this top-secret animation:
Facebook denied any knowledge of the NSA’s malware infection program, and said its site is now protected against such attacks. But the company suggested that, if the allegations are true, other social networks could also have been compromised.
“We have no evidence of this alleged activity,” a Facebook spokesman told National Journal. “In any case, this method of network level disruption does not work for traffic carried over HTTPS, which Facebook finished integrating by default last year.”
“If government agencies indeed have privileged access to network service providers, any site running only HTTP could conceivably have its traffic misdirected.”
In response to the story, the NSA in a statement said, “Signals intelligence shall be collected exclusively where there is a foreign intelligence or counterintelligence purpose.”
UPDATE: The National Security Agency on Thursday denied using a doppelganger version of Facebook, saying it lacks the ability to do so and only conducts foreign intelligence operations that are “lawful and appropriate.”