NSA Bond-like Hacking Unit TAO "Gets the Ungettable"
James-Bond-style-supergeeks have a home, and it's (unsurprisingly) at the National Security Agency. A new report released by the German magazine Der Spiegal Sunday reveals that the NSA uses an elite and highly specialized team of hackers to break into computers around the world and "get the ungettable," successfully infiltrating 258 targets in 89 countries over the last decade.
The unit, known as Tailored Access Operations, or TAO, supposedly uses techniques and special gadgets that range from USB sticks fitted with radio transmitters to fake base stations that intercept cellphone signals to accessing emails sent via Blackberry's email servers to infiltrating entire computer networks — including the protected networks of heads of state.
The report reads:
The unit is "akin to the wunderkind of the US intelligence community," says Matthew Aid, a historian who specializes in the history of the NSA. "Getting the ungettable" is the NSA's own description of its duties. "It is not about the quantity produced but the quality of intelligence that is important," one former TAO chief wrote, describing her work in a document. The paper seen by SPIEGEL quotes the former unit head stating that TAO has contributed "some of the most significant intelligence our country has ever seen." The unit, it goes on, has "access to our very hardest targets."
The unit — a cybergeek's wet dream — was formed back in 1997, when, as the report points out, only a tiny percentage of the world had even heard of the Internet, and its staff are based in San Antonio, Texas. Although the team was made up of 60 hackers in 2008, it's estimated that by 2015, the unit will have a whopping 270 members. In spite of the unit's wide range of operations — from cyber-attacks to counter-terrorism — some of their techniques are still surprisingly old-school: they'll even snatch laptops before they've been delivered to install spyware.
As the report explains:
If a target person, agency or company orders a new computer or related accessories, for example, TAO can divert the shipping delivery to its own secret workshops. The NSA calls this method interdiction. At these so-called "load stations," agents carefully open the package in order to load malware onto the electronics, or even install hardware components that can provide backdoor access for the intelligence agencies. All subsequent steps can then be conducted from the comfort of a remote computer.
But that's only one of many unnerving ways the TAO breaks into computers — they also use Microsoft's crash reports to gain access to Windows-based computers, a revelation to which Microsoft has yet to respond. The NSA's only comment on the Spiegel report? This statement: "Tailored Access Operations is a unique national asset that is on the front lines of enabling NSA to defend the nation and its allies. [TAO's] work is centred on computer network exploitation in support of foreign intelligence collection."The report was in part compiled by Laura Poitras, who has previously worked with whistleblower Edward Snowden. On Sunday, former air force general and NSA and CIA chief Michael Hayden again accused Snowden of treason, saying that his leaks had made the NSA "inherently weaker" by revealing now only who the agency spies on, but how. The subject is pertinent: only two days ago, New York’s U.S. District Judge William Pauley ruled that the NSA’s surveillance of Americans’ phone calls is both legal and critical to preventing terrorism, in complete opposition to the previous week's ruling from Washington D.C.’s U.S. District Judge Richard Leon, and setting the stage for a final Supreme Court decision.