NSA tops up exploit pool with $25m in ‘grey market‘ vulnerabilities

The US National Security Agency (NSA) spent $25.1 million on software bugs from grey market vulnerability vendors in financial year 2013 as part of a larger offensive security program aimed at foreign networks, according to a recent report from Washington Post.

Newly disclosed intelligence budget documents provided to the newspaper by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed that US intelligence services are responsible for malware on tens of thousands of devices in foreign networks every year and the US government conducted 231 offensive cyber operations on foreign networks in 2011.

The newspaper report revealed a parallel program code-named GENIE under which hackers within the US government exploit foreign networks using “covert implants” that are placed on targets’ computers, routers and firewalls.

GENIE has had tens of thousands of machines under active control each year, but human resource constraints have limited its use. The program was projected to control 85,000 hand-picked machines by the end of 2013 -- up from 21,000 in 2008 -- but in 2011, with staff of 1,870 people, it only made full use of 8,448 of the 68,975 machines installed with the implants, according to the report.

A new project code-named TURBINE aims to automate active implant control, potentially enabling the control of millions of devices, according to the report.

The NSA group that is responsible for the highest level offensive security efforts is the Remote Operations Centre (ROC) -- an elite unit within the NSA’s highly secretive Tailored Access Operations that co-operates with teams from the FBI, CIA and US Cyber Command. Existence of the TAO, created in 1997, was only recently exposed in an article by Foreign Policy.

According to the Washington Post report, ROC’s $651.7 million 2013 financial year budget for offensive activity was twice the size of the intelligence community’s cyber budget for defence activities.

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