NSA Unit Intercepts Computer Shipments for Secret Access Modifications

Wednesday, January 01, 2014
A TAO liaison office is housed in the Dagger Complex at a U.S. military compound in Germany (photo: DPA)

Sophisticated as it is with myriad forms of electronic spying at its disposal, the National Security Agency (NSA) sometimes resorts to old-fashioned, hands-on methods of breaking into someone’s computer system.


In rare instances when the agency can’t hack its way into a network, the NSA employs a special group of “plumbers” to gain access.


These specialists intercept computer shipments ordered by a targeted person and reroute the boxes to secret workshops. There, the packages are opened, and either software or hardware are implanted into the equipment to allow the NSA full access to the system once it’s operational by the target. The packages are then carefully resealed and sent on their way to the unsuspecting customers.


This type of old-school procedure, referred to by NSA as “interdiction,” is considered by the agency to be one of its “most productive operations,” a method that gives the NSA access to computer networks “around the world.”


These interceptions are just one of the many sneaky tasks performed by the NSA’s Office of Tailored Access Operations (TAO), which is also skilled at electronic snooping.


According to NSA documents obtained by the German newspaper Der Spiegel, TAO handles jobs involving counterterrorism, cyber attacks and traditional espionage.


Matthew Aid, a historian who specializes in NSA history, told Spiegel that TAO is “akin to the wunderkind of the US intelligence community,” adding that within the NSA, the unit is known for “getting the ungettable.”


TAO’s work has extended around the globe, reaching more than 250 targets in nearly 90 countries. It has been projected that about 85,000 computers worldwide were infiltrated by NSA specialists as of the end of 2013. Most of the "implants" were accomplished via the Internet by TAO teams.


“Indeed, TAO specialists have directly accessed the protected networks of democratically elected leaders of countries,” Spiegel wrote. “They infiltrated networks of European telecommunications companies and gained access to and read mails sent over Blackberry's BES email servers, which until then were believed to be securely encrypted.”


The unit’s successes have given the NSA reason to expand its size and locations since first establishing TAO in 1997.


TAO offices now operate out of Wahiawa, Hawaii; Fort Gordon, Georgia; Buckley Air Force Base near Denver, Colorado; Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas; and Fort Meade, Maryland (NSA headquarters).


The San Antonio unit alone is expected to grow from 60 to 270 specialists by 2015.

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Inside TAO: Documents Reveal Top NSA Hacking Unit (Der Spiegel)

Shopping for Spy Gear: Catalog Advertises NSA Toolbox (by Jacob Appelbaum, Judith Horchert and Christian Stöcker, Der Spiegel)

Computer Security Firm Accepted $10 Million Payoff to Give NSA Backdoor Access (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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