National Security Agency documents referenced in the German magazine Der Spiegel on Sunday reveal a top-secret hacking unit that infiltrates computer systems and breaks into fortified data targets around the world.
The office, known as Tailored Access Operations, steals data and installs invisible “back door” spying devices and programs on computer systems, often exploiting weaknesses in the technology industry and its social media products. The Guardian reports:
The magazine portrayed TAO as an elite team of hackers specialising in gaining undetected access to intelligence 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 that the unit’s operations have obtained “some of the most significant intelligence our country has ever seen”.
NSA officials responded to the Spiegel report with a statement, which said: “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.”
… According to the Spiegel 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 Lackland Air Force Base. 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.
The Guardian references a quote published in Der Spiegel from a former chief of TAO saying that the unit “has access to our very hardest targets” and its objective would be to “support computer network attacks as an integrated part of military operations” using “pervasive, persistent access on the global network.”