The US National Security Agency has employed more than a thousand IT specialists to hack into 50,000 computer systems worldwide and to install malicious software designed to steal sensitive information, a media report has said.
In addition to its massive monitoring and collection of telephone and Internet data, the US intelligence agency has been extensively infiltrating computer systems around the world and planted malware, Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad reported on Saturday.
The Amsterdam daily said top secret NSA documents made available by whistle-blower Edward Snowden have revealed that the agency was able to infiltrate over 50,000 computer networks and to install the malware with the help of its Computer Networks Exploration programme.
Documents leaked earlier showed that the NSA has been carrying out this kind of cyber operations since 1998. The newspaper said that between 1998 and 2012, the number of hacker attacks more than doubled.
A management presentation of the NSA from 2012 showed that the cyber attacks code-named Tailored Access Operations were carried out from a special NSA department, which employed the hackers, the newspaper said.
The NSA malware installed on a computer can remain active for several years without being detected and it can be controlled remotely from the NSA headquarters in FortMeade, in the US, according to the newspaper.
"These implants acted as digital sleeper cells that can be activated with a single push of a button," it said. A similar operation was carried out by Britain's Government Communications Headquarters to infiltrate the computer networks of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries in Vienna, the Belgian telecommunications service provider Belgacom and some other companies.
Documents leaked by Snowden earlier showed that the GCHQ manipulated some popular websites to gain access to their computer networks and to plant malware.
Cyber operations are increasingly important for the NSA. Computer hacks are relatively inexpensive and provide the agency with opportunities to obtain information that they otherwise would not have access to, the newspaper said.
The NSA presentation showed that Brazil and Venezuela were among the countries targeted by the NSA for its CNE operations, it said.
The GCHQ has used a programme code-named "Quantum Insert" to hack into various computer systems.