Darlene Storm

60 sickening Minutes: NSA saved us from Chinese Dr. Evil BIOS plot to brick all PCs

December 16, 2013 11:34 AM EST

If you saw the 60-minute infomercial for the NSA, then you “know” the spy agency allegedly stops viruses / malware that could brick PCs and practically destroy the world. So where was it when Cryptolocker ransomware pretty much did exactly that by destroying data via encrypting it until the ransom was paid? Where was this intelligence that stopped disaster for any of the viruses, Trojans, or malware that have trashed computers?

Supposedly, CBS News senior correspondent John Miller asked the “hardest questions we could find,” but the 60 Minutes NSA interview was sickeningly one-sided and is being called a big load of “crap” by security researchers and other critics.

“Full disclosure, I once worked in the office of the director of National Intelligence where I saw firsthand how secretly the NSA operates,” admitted Miller. He added that the NSA would “address serious questions about whether the NSA delves too far into the lives of Americans” during the 60 Minutes interview. Then real journalism died a little bit as Miller calmly accepted Gen. Keith Alexander’s statement that the NSA is “defending our civil liberties and privacy.”

There was the expected character assassination as Miller described Edward Snowden as a “20-something-year-old high school dropout contractor.” The audience was told that Snowden cheated by using his system administrator privileges to steal the questions and answers to an NSA technical entrance exam. The NSA alleged that Snowden could have left behind a time-bomb virus and had to remove every system he touched.

The Snowden Affair” opened the way for NSA cyber defense director Debora Plunkett to describe how the agency saved the U.S. from a catastrophic Chinese “BIOS Plot” that allegedly would have bricked all computers in our country and possibly the world.

Plunkett: One of our analysts actually saw that the nation state had the intention to develop and to deliver, to actually use this capability-- to destroy computers.

Miller: To destroy computers.

Plunkett: To destroy computers. So the BIOS is a basic input, output system. It's, like, the foundational component firmware of a computer. You start your computer up. The BIOS kicks in. It activates hardware. It activates the operating system. It turns on the computer.

This is the BIOS system which starts most computers. The attack would have been disguised as a request for a software update. If the user agreed, the virus would’ve infected the computer.

Miller: So, this basically would have gone into the system that starts up the computer, runs the systems, tells it what to do.

Plunkett: That's right.

Miller: --and basically turned it into a cinderblock.

Plunkett: A brick.

Miller: And after that, there wouldn't be much you could do with that computer.

Plunkett: That's right. Think about the impact of that across the entire globe. It could literally take down the U.S. economy.

Miller: I don't mean to be flip about this. But it has a kind of a little Dr. Evil quality-- to it that, "I'm going to develop a program that can destroy every computer in the world." It sounds almost unbelievable.

Plunkett: Don't be fooled. There are absolutely nation states who have the capability and the intentions to do just that.

Miller: And based on what you learned here at NSA. Would it have worked?

Plunkett: We believe it would have. Yes. 

NSA claims to have saved the world from Dr Evil BIOS plotErrata Security’s Robert Graham explained how security researchers know the “60 Minutes NSA interview was crap,” a “travesty of journalism,” and “gibberish.” Of the BIOS plot portion, Graham said, “The event has been distorted to serve the needs of propaganda. It's completely false in the message it is trying to convey. What comes out is gibberish, as any technical person can confirm.”

After quoting the BIOS plot portion of the transcript, Graham expounded:

There are no technical details. Yes, they talk about "BIOS", but it's redundant, unrelated to their primary claim. Any virus/malware can destroy the BIOS, making a computer unbootable, "bricking" it. There's no special detail here. All they are doing is repeating what Wikipedia says about BIOS, acting as techie talk layered onto the discussion to make it believable, much like how Star Trek episodes talk about warp cores and Jeffries Tubes.

Stripped of techie talk, this passage simply says "The NSA foiled a major plot, trust us." But of course, there is no reason we should trust them. It's like how the number of terrorist plots foiled by telephone eavesdropping started at 50 then was reduced to 12 then to 2 and then to 0, as the NSA was forced to justify their claims under oath instead of in front of news cameras. The NSA has proven itself an unreliable source for such information -- we can only trust them if they come out with more details -- under oath.

Moreover, they don't even say what they imply. It's all weasel-words. 

How did 60 Minutes get its cameras into top-secret areas of the NSA? According Miller, the NSA said, "I've got an idea: Let's just have 60 Minutes go through the place and talk to people we find interesting and film everybody at work." Maybe selling your soul to the devil is the price a person pays to land a top NYPD counterterrorism spot? Rumor has it that Miller will be appointed an intelligence or counterterrorism position under incoming NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton.

By squandering an opportunity to ask the NSA real questions on behalf of Americans, Miller seems to have done American citizens a serious disservice, a real injustice. 60 Minutes should be ashamed of the interview it aired. But hey, it's not like the truth comes out even when NSA officials are questioned by Congress.