A German magazine lifted the lid on the operations of the National Security Agency’s hacking unit Sunday, reporting 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 Sunday 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.”
Der Spiegel said TAO had a catalog of high-tech gadgets 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.
The NSA doesn’t just rely on spy gear, the magazine said. 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, Inc. and China’s Huawei Technologies Ltd., the magazine reported.
Der Spiegel cited a 2008 mail order catalog-style list of vulnerabilities that NSA spies could exploit from companies such as Irvine, California-based Western Digital Corp. or Round Rock, Texas-based Dell Inc. The magazine said that suggested the agency was “compromising the technology and products of American companies.”
Old-fashioned methods get a mention too. Der Spiegel said that 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 discretely fitted with espionage software before being sent on its way.
Intercepting computer equipment in such a way is among the NSA’s “most productive operations,” and has helped harvest intelligence from around the world, one document cited by Der Spiegel stated.
One of the most striking reported revelations concerned the NSA’s alleged ability to spy on Microsoft Corp.’s crash reports, familiar to many users of the Windows operating system as the dialogue box which 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.
Microsoft did not immediately return a call seeking comment, but the company is one of several U.S. firms that have demanded more transparency from the NSA in the wake of the revelations of former intelligence worker Edward Snowden, whose disclosures have ignited an international debate over privacy and surveillance.
No one was immediately available at Der Spiegel to clarify whether Snowden was the source for the latest story.
In related news, the debate over the National Security Agency’s collection of millions of Americans’ telephone records fell squarely into the courts when a federal judge in Manhattan Friday upheld the legality of the program, citing its need in the fight against terrorism, just days after another federal judge concluded it was likely unconstitutional.