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NSA Disputes Report On Program To Automate Infection Of 'Millions' Of Machines

Latest Snowden leaks show details of NSA TURBINE operation, and Facebook founder speaks out

The National Security Agency (NSA) today shot down as "inaccurate" a new press report that the agency has potentially planted malware on potentially millions of computers worldwide and even impersonated Facebook and other websites to lure potential targets.

The Intercept news site yesterday reported that classified documents pilfered by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden showed that the NSA had built technology to automatically infect "potentially millions of computers" around the world with malware in order for the agency to glean data from foreign Internet and phone networks. The so-called implant operation reportedly started out as an isolated program for a few hundred targets, but the NSA over the past 10 years has automated some aspects of the program to reach targets on a wider scale, according to The Intercept.

Dubbed TURBINE, the automated system was built to "allow the current implant network to scale to large size (millions of implants) by creating a system that does automated control implants by groups instead of individually," the report quotes NSA documents as saying. The NSA set up a server posting as a Facebook server to infect a target and grab files from its hard drive, for example, and also use other man-in-the-middle type attacks that reroute victims to the NSA's computers that then inject the "implant" malware.

To zero in on a target, the NSA uses intelligence gleaned from the target's Internet traffic patterns, the report says. In the case of the phony Facebook server, the NSA infects the target with malware from what appears to be a legitimate Facebook page.

But the NSA today disputed elements of the media report on the program. "Recent media reports that allege NSA has infected millions of computers around the world with malware, and that NSA is impersonating U.S. social media or other websites, are inaccurate. NSA uses its technical capabilities only to support lawful and appropriate foreign intelligence operations, all of which must be carried out in strict accordance with its authorities. Technical capability must be understood within the legal, policy, and operational context within which that capability must be employed," the NSA said in a statement today.

The agency said it does not "use its technical capabilities to impersonate U.S. company websites" and it only targets users under proper legal authority. "Reports of indiscriminate computer exploitation operations are simply false," according to the NSA. "NSA’s authorities require that its foreign intelligence operations support valid national security requirements, protect the legitimate privacy interests of all persons, and be as tailored as feasible."

Meanwhile, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg today said he had called President Obama to voice his concerns about media reports on government surveillance. "The internet works because most people and companies do the same. We work together to create this secure environment and make our shared space even better for the world," Zuckerberg wrote today on Facebook. "This is why I've been so confused and frustrated by the repeated reports of the behavior of the US government. When our engineers work tirelessly to improve security, we imagine we're protecting you against criminals, not our own government."

He called for the U.S. government to be more transparent, or "people will believe the worst."

"I've called President Obama to express my frustration over the damage the government is creating for all of our future. Unfortunately, it seems like it will take a very long time for true full reform," Zuckerberg said.

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Add Your Comment" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message.

Kelly Jackson Higgins is Executive Editor at DarkReading.com. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio

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Kelly Jackson Higgins
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Kelly Jackson Higgins,
User Rank: Strategist
3/14/2014 | 1:21:01 PM
re: NSA Disputes Report On Program To Automate Infection Of 'Millions' Of Machines
There are many ways to parse that NSA denial.
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