German newspaper Der Spiegel has published a couple of articles today detailing some of the latest information being uncovered by the release of documents from the trove of NSA leaker Edward Snowden. The most startling may be the fact that the NSA actually intercepts some packages of commercial electronics before they arrive at their destination so that they can create “back doors” to hack into the hardware whenever they see fit.
The documents disclose that there is a “secret” NSA unit of elite hackers and computer geeks working to help the USA dominate the intelligence game. The Unit is called TAO for Tailored Access Operations and the work they do is extremely important, but may also become very worrisome for those interested in our civil liberties and the privacy of all Americans.
One of the two main buildings at the former plant has since housed a sophisticated NSA unit, one that has benefited the most from this expansion and has grown the fastest in recent years — the Office of Tailored Access Operations, or TAO. This is the NSA’s top operative unit — something like a squad of plumbers that can be called in when normal access to a target is blocked.
According to internal NSA documents viewed by SPIEGEL, these on-call digital plumbers are involved in many sensitive operations conducted by American intelligence agencies. TAO’s area of operations ranges from counterterrorism to cyber attacks to traditional espionage. The documents reveal just how diversified the tools at TAO’s disposal have become — and also how it exploits the technical weaknesses of the IT industry, from Microsoft to Cisco and Huawei, to carry out its discreet and efficient attacks.
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 NSA’s top-flight computer hacking department Tailored Access Operations (TAO) keeps a catalog of all of the electronic equipment that it maintains backdoor access for.
According to Snowden documents, TAO has a catalog of all the commercial equipment that carries NSA backdoors. And it’s a who’s who of a list. Storage products from Western Digital, Seagate, Maxtor and Samsung have backdoors in their firmware, firewalls from Juniper Networks have been compromised, plus networking equipment from Cisco and Huawei, and even unspecified products from Dell. TAO actually intercepts online orders of these and other electronics to bug them.
In fact, the NSA’s TAO division is constantly creating new products as hacking and spying hardware for the NSA to try out on unsuspecting users.
The international intelligence game is important. For a nation to remain a superpower it must lead the way in intelligence, otherwise it will lose its advantages. However, is it more important for the USA to remain politically dominant in the world, or for the American people to retain their God-given rights and freedoms without the ability of the government to infringe on those rights? A balance is needed. The NSA must find a way to stay on top of the intelligence world without infringing on our basic liberties. The illusion of safety is never as important as our individual liberty. Never.
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