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NSA alleges 'BIOS plot to destroy PCs'

Un-named PC maker sought help to defeat un-named nation's PC-bricking plan

Sign outside the National Security Agency HQ

Senior National Security Agency (NSA) officials have told US news magazine program “60 Minutes” that a foreign nation tried to infect computers with a BIOS-based virus that would have enabled them to be remotely destroyed.

NSA Director General Keith Alexander and Information Assurance Director Debora Plunkett both appeared on the program in an attempt to defend the many unsettling domestic espionage programs revealed by Edward Snowden.

During the interview, the transcript of which can be found here, the pair made the following allegations:

  • A foreign country developed BIOS malware “disguised as a request for a software update” that would have turned PCs into “a brick.” Plunkett said “The NSA working with computer manufacturers was able to close this vulnerability”. 60 Minutes names China as the culprit
  • The NSA is listening to “Less than 60 people globally who are considered U.S. Persons,” according to Alexander
  • The NSA prefers to look at metadata rather than intercept communications, as the former is felt to be the “least intrusive” way of snooping
  • Before 9/11 the USA lacked the capability to match metadata from multiple carriers that would allow understanding of conversations between two parties and it is felt the lack of such an ability helped the 9/11 plotters to evade detection

The segment appears to have been far from a terrifying experience for the interviewees: the tone is that the NSA is a misunderstood entity doing its best to defend the USA against terrorism and worse. It therefore includes lots of soft stuff about the super-clever folks who work at the NSA and the cryptographic feats performed by its interns. There's also a quick primer on social engineering and how the bad guys use it to get the good guys clicking on bad things.

How much weight to give to “revelations” like the BIOS attack is therefore hard to assess. One thing seems certain: the NSA has decided it needs to play harder in the battle for hearts and minds in the USA and beyond. 60 Minutes seems to have decided to play along. ®

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