Three days before President Barack Obama will allegedly announce major changes to the NSA's surveillance programs, The New York Times has a story addressing one particularly controversial practice: intercepting laptops purchased online to insert bugs that can phone home — or even give remote access — to the US government. According to the Times, not only does that practice take place, but the bugs are now installed in nearly 100,000 computers around the world as part of a program code-named Quantum. However, the publication's government sources say they aren't being used inside the United States, but rather to spy on allleged Chinese and Russian military hacker groups, Mexican drug cartels, European "trade institutions," and alleged terrorists. Since the devices have their own radios, they can allegedly tap into computers that aren't connected to the internet.
While officials reportedly told the Times that the devices are mainly intended for defense, their first big test was as part of an attack. According to the publication, the bugs were first used to map out the inner workings of the Natanz uranium enrichment plant in Iran, setting up for the Stuxnet computer worm that eventually sabotaged the facility's centrifuges and crippled Iran's nuclear program. The Times writes that it knew about the technology when it reported on Stuxnet in the summer of 2012, but withheld details at the request of US intelligence officials.