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Latest Revelations on NSA Likely to Change Little in US Cyber Spying

An undated aerial handout photo shows the National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters building in Fort Meade, Maryland.
An undated aerial handout photo shows the National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters building in Fort Meade, Maryland.
U.S. officials are reacting cautiously to revelations published in The New York Times that the National Security Agency has found a way to spy on computers even when they are not connected to the Internet.  Report says software was implanted into 100,000 computers worldwide.

The latest report on the spy agency comes as President Barack Obama prepares a major speech on possible reforms to the way U.S. agencies gather intelligence. But some experts warn the public should not expect too much to change.

"A lot of these tricks coming out about the NSA are tricks that everyone is using," said James Andrew Lewis.

James Andrew Lewis is a cybersecurity expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"You can make it more costly, you can make it harder, but the race isn’t going to stop.  This is just too important for nations - not just the U.S. - it’s too important for any major power to say, 'I will give up on signals intelligence.'  They all collect it; they will keep collecting it in the future," he said.

The report in The New York Times says the United States used radio transmitters embedded in cords and drives that are attached to a computer to successfully implant software into Russian military networks, systems used by Mexican police and drug cartels, and European Union trade groups.  The newspaper says the technology also was used to target computers in Saudi Arabia, India and Pakistan.

The White House is defending the spy agency, saying it "operates under heavy oversight and is focused on discovering and developing intelligence about valid and foreign intelligence targets such as terrorists, human traffickers and drug smugglers."

Already, the report has sparked criticism from China, with a Foreign Ministry spokesman saying Washington is "endangering the sovereignty, security and public privacy of other countries.''

Despite the criticism, former U.S. National Security Council member Raymond Tanter says he expects the U.S. to remain active and vigilant.

"The U.S. government is in position to correct for any national security implications with respect to countries like China.  China is doing as much as it can do.  Russia is doing as much as it can do.  Iran is doing as much as it can do," said Tanter.

Former congresswoman Jane Harman, who is now president of the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, made this plea to lawmakers at a hearing Wednesday:

"We need to have an effective system that can spot bad guys and prevent and disrupt plots against us," said Harman.

Jeff Seldin

Jeff works out of VOA’s Washington headquarters covering a wide variety of subjects, from the nature of the growing terror threat in Northern Africa to China’s crackdown on Tibet and the struggle over immigration reform in the United States. You can follow Jeff on Twitter at @jseldin or on Google Plus.

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