Report: NSA intercepts computer deliveries
LONDON — A German magazine lifted the lid on the operations of the National Security Agency's hacking unit on Sunday, reporting that American spies intercept computer deliveries, exploit hardware vulnerabilities and 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 TAO's mission is “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.”
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, Der Spiegel said.
The NSA doesn't rely on just James Bond-style 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, Calif.-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.”
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 that pops up when a game freezes or a Word document dies. The system is intended to help Microsoft engineers improve their products and fix bugs, but Der Spiegel said the NSA was sifting through the reports to help spies break into machines running Windows. One NSA document cited by the magazine appeared to poke fun at Microsoft's expense, replacing the software giant's standard error report message with the words: “This information may be intercepted by a foreign sigint (signals intelligence) system to gather detailed information and better exploit your machine.”