WASHINGTON — The National Security Agency secretly planned a cyberwarfare program that could automatically fire back at cyberattacks from foreign countries without any human involvement, creating the risk of accidentally starting a war, according to a new report based on interviews with former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
The program, codenamed MonsterMind, would have let the agency automate "hunting for the beginnings" of a foreign cyberattack, the report said. The software would constantly look for digital "traffic patterns" that indicated known or suspected attacks, said the report in Wired magazine.
The report, part of a wide-ranging interview with Snowden in Moscow, described the program as "in the works" and said it went further than other programs that existed for decades. With no human involvement, Snowden told the magazine, a counter-attack could be leveled at an innocent party — largely because initial attacks are often routed or diverted through other countries.
"You could have someone sitting in China, for example, making it appear that one of these attacks is originating in Russia. And then we end up shooting back at a Russian hospital," Snowden said. "What happens next?"
The problem of attribution after a cyberattack has long unsettled computer security experts. A House technology subcommittee in 2010 concluded that, "proactively tracing interactions within a system may help determine where an attack originated after one occurs, but tracing every interaction is impractical and quite likely unconstitutional."
Snowden also called the program a major threat to privacy because NSA would first "have to secretly get access to virtually all private communications coming in from overseas to people in the U.S.," said the report.
The NSA declined to comment on specifics of the Wired report.