America's NSA had established an army of "sleeper cells" – malware-infected, remote-controllable computers – on 50,000 networks by the middle of 2012. That's according to the latest leaks from whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad reports that the elite NSA TAO (Tailored Access Operations) hacking squad had used malware to establish a zombie army with tentacles all across the world.
The malware serves as a sleeper agent on compromised PCs, waiting months or longer before it activates and begins harvesting data. This stolen information is covertly fed into the NSA's voracious data processing apparatus. The malware (or "implants" in the lexicon of the NSA) is slung onto compromised machines using Computer Network Exploitation, or hacking, tactics.
The methodology of the attacks carried out by the NSA is probably similar to the Belgacom hack blamed on GCHQ, which used fake LinkedIn and Slashdot pages to serve malicious code to targeted system engineers at the Belgian telco. The malware variant featuring in the latest NSA leaks is unknown, although we do know it established backdoor access to systems in Brazil, one of the countries that has been most vocal in complaining about US cyber-espionage antics, and Mexico. Similar malware-based tactics have reportedly been a feature of the NSA's playbook for 15 years since 1998.
Previous leaks from Edward Snowden have revealed the detailed methodology for the NSA's deployment of malware, so the latest leaks only really put one operation under the microscope rather than helping to uncover a previously unknown tactic. The latest leak illustrates that state-sponsored cyber espionage is far from the sole preserve of the Chinese, who are routinely blamed for so-called Advanced Persistent Threat-style attacks featuring custom malware and phishing. ®