Meet TAO, the NSA Unit That 'Gets the Ungettable'

Der Spiegel lifts lid on unit, which reportedly intercepts computer deliveries
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Dec 30, 2013 7:57 AM CST
This June 6, 2013, file photo shows a sign outside the National Security Agency (NSA) campus in Fort Meade, Md.   (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)
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(Newser) – Another big NSA revelation, this one courtesy of Germany's der Spiegel: The magazine yesterday reported that American spies intercept computer deliveries, exploit hardware vulnerabilities, and even hijack Microsoft's internal reporting system to spy on their targets. Der Spiegel's revelations relate to a division of the NSA known as Tailored Access Operations, or TAO, which is painted as an elite team of hackers specializing in stealing data from the toughest of targets. Citing internal NSA documents, the magazine said that TAO's mission was "Getting the ungettable," and quoted an unnamed intelligence official as saying that TAO had gathered "some of the most significant intelligence our country has ever seen." Among the methods used:

  • Der Spiegel said TAO had a catalog of James Bond-style spy gear for particularly hard-to-crack cases, including computer monitor cables specially modified to record what is being typed across the screen, USB sticks secretly fitted with radio transmitters to broadcast stolen data over the airwaves, and fake base stations intended to intercept mobile phone signals on the go.
  • Other methods don't rely on such gadgets: Some of the attacks described by der Spiegel exploit weaknesses in the architecture of the Internet to deliver malicious software to specific computers. Others take advantage of weaknesses in hardware or software distributed by some of the world's leading information technology companies, including Cisco Systems and China's Huawei Technologies.
  • Old-fashioned methods get a mention, too: If the NSA tracked a target ordering a new computer or other electronic accessories, TAO could tap its allies in the FBI and the CIA, intercept the hardware in transit, and take it to a secret workshop where it could be discreetly fitted with espionage software before being sent on its way.
  • The NSA is allegedly able to spy on Microsoft's crash reports, familiar to many Windows users as the dialogue box that pops up when a game freezes or a Word document dies. The reporting system is intended to help Microsoft engineers improve their products and fix bugs, but der Spiegel said the NSA was also sifting through the reports to help spies break into machines running Windows.
Der Spiegel did not explicitly say where its cache NSA documents had come from, and no one was immediately available at der Spiegel to clarify whether Edward Snowden was the source for the latest story.

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