NSA has secret team to infiltrate hardest targets, says report: Leaked documents refer to 'getting at the ungettable' Allegations of intercepted deliveries to add spyware
(Guardian (UK) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) A top-secret National Security Agency hacking unit infiltrates computers around the world and breaks into the toughest data targets, according to secret documents revealed yesterday.
Details of how the division, known as Tailored Access Operations (TAO), steals data and inserts invisible "back door" spying devices into computer systems were published by the German magazine Der Spiegel.
The magazine portrayed TAO as an elite team of hackers specialising in gaining undetected access to targets that have proved the toughest to penetrate through other spying techniques, and described its overall mission as "getting the ungettable". The report quoted an official saying the unit's operations have obtained "some of the most significant intelligence our country has ever seen".
NSA officials responded with 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."
Der Spiegel has previously reported on documents leaked by the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Yesterday's report was partly compiled by the journalist Laura Poitras, who collaborated with Snowden and the Guardian in his initial revelations about NSA collection of the telephone data of thousands of Americans and overseas intelligence targets.
Der Spiegel said its documents showed how TAO operatives actually intercept physical deliveries of packages containing technology ordered by target persons, agencies or companies it wishes to spy on.
"If a target orders a computer or accessories, TAO can divert the shipping delivery to its own secret workshop . . . agents carefully open the package to load malware into the electronics. [Spying] can then be conducted from the comfort of a remote computer," Der Spiegel reported.
According to the report, TAO staff are based in San Antonio, Texas, at a former Sony computer chip factory, not far from another NSA team housed alongside ordinary military personnel at the Lackland Air Force Base in the area. The magazine described TAO as the equivalent of "digital plumbers" called in to break through anti-spying "blockages". The team totalled 60 specialists in 2008, the magazine said, but is expected to grow to 270 by 2015.
Their areas of operation range from counter-terrorism to cyber attacks and use discreet and efficient methods that often exploit technical weaknesses in the technology industry and its social media products.
The documents seen by Der Spiegel quote a former chief of TAO saying the unit "has access to our very hardest targets" and its mission would be to "support computer network attacks as an integrated part of military operations" using "pervasive, persistent access on the global network".
(c) 2013 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
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