The US National Security Agency has reportedly developed technology to commandeer computers even when they are off the Internet, and security experts warn it's only a matter of time before similar tools become part of cybercriminals' toolbox.
Since 2008, the NSA has used radio technology to send and receive data to compromise nearly 100,000 systems in a number of overseas targets, the New York Times reported Wednesday. While based on technology that has been around for decades, the level of sophistication of the tools developed by the NSA is impressive, experts say.
"The latest technology that they're using now, and the components that they're using, is infinitely more complex and is well-suited for the mission," Drew Porter, senior security analyst, for consulting firm Bishop Fox, said.
The NSA reportedly developed a radio transmitter/receiver that could fit in a USB plug or embedded in a laptop as a tiny circuit board. The technology can then move data over a secret radio channel back and forth with a relay station small enough to fit in an oversize briefcase and located as far as eight miles away.
To compromise the system the NSA would have to surreptitiously plant the technology using a spy, computer manufacturer or unwitting user, The Times said. Some of the tools used in such an operation were listed in an NSA catalog published last month by German newsmagazine Der Spiegel.
Such technology is far more advanced than the malware hackers use today to infect corporate networks to steal sensitive documents that can be sold on the black market or handed to government agencies.
As long as these techniques are effective, the majority of run-of-the-mill cybercriminals will use them, instead of going through the trouble of using something as complex as the NSA technology.
"They would go after another target before going to this length," Sean Sullivan, security adviser at F-Secure, said.
However, the technology and techniques used by spy agencies today will make their way into the criminal underground eventually.
"Within the intelligence community, it's known that the technology they are developing today is probably going to be used for corporate espionage or cybercrime down the road," Porter said.
In the case of the NSA's radio technology, successful cybercrime organisations would have the money to build the equipment or hire someone else to do it, if the technology's use would be highly profitable.
"Looking at a piece of equipment that costs $100,000 may be a lot for the average person, but if it means you can make $1 million off of it or $500 million for stealing (intellectual property), then it's definitely an investment (cybercriminals) would be willing to make," Porter said.
Some NSA technology has already found its way into criminal circles. The agency reportedly developed malware used to destroy centrifuges in Iranian nuclear facilities in 2010, The Times reported. The NSA used its radio technology for two years to gather information on the facilities in preparation for the attack.
Due to a technical error, the malware, later called Stuxnet, was discovered on the Internet and dissected by security researchers.
NSA gadgets that seem to come from a James Bond film will take years to find their way into criminal circles. Therefore, companies should focus today on keeping up with the less dramatic updates that occur regularly to hackers' malware and exploit kits.
"More sophisticated spying techniques and malicious attacks continue to be developed and organisations need to re-examine their critical applications and security processes to ensure that sensitive information and systems are protected," Sam Erdheim, senior security strategist for network security company AlgoSec, said.