NSA Unit “TAO” Seeks “Pervasive” Access to Internet

The German magazine Der Spiegel revealed extraordinary details about the NSA’s TAO program December 29, which is tasked with “pervasive” penetration of the Internet and global telephone traffic. This most aggressive division of the U.S. government’s National Security Agency directly hacks into computers and telephones and is focused upon foreign governments, perhaps differing from other NSA programs that also harvest the data of American citizens.

Der Spiegel quoted one TAO analyst who wrote that the goal of the program was to attain “pervasive” access to computers globally. “To succeed in this, she wrote, TAO would have to acquire ‘pervasive, persistent access on the global network.’” While Der Spiegel’s story implied that the focus of the program was on foreign governments, it published no guidelines within the NSA that limited the program to foreign targets. The German investigative magazine noted that this aggressive and growing NSA branch was designed to deal the full range of federal government priorities:

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.

Investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald explained – in reaction to the Der Speigel article – that “this malware allows the NSA to literally watch every keystroke that you make, to get screen captures of what it is that you’re doing, to circumvent all forms of encryption and other barriers to your communications.”

The story noted that TAO has produced some odd side-effects for American citizens. “In January 2010, numerous homeowners in San Antonio, Texas, stood baffled in front of their closed garage doors. They wanted to drive to work or head off to do their grocery shopping, but their garage door openers had gone dead, leaving them stranded. No matter how many times they pressed the buttons, the doors didn’t budge…. Officials at the agency were forced to admit that one of the NSA’s radio antennas was broadcasting at the same frequency as the garage door openers.” Why the NSA was broadcasting at that frequency in suburban San Antonio was never explained.

The Der Spiegel article implied (but did not say directly) that the information was released by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden in this statement about how TAO was centrally involved in the previously reported hacking of the Mexican president’s e-mail accounts: “This operation, dubbed ‘Flatliquid,’ is described in a document leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden, which SPIEGEL has now had the opportunity to analyze.” The computer hacking of the Mexican president’s account was labeled a “lucrative source” of information by NSA hackers.

The story also revealed that Brazil had been a key target of U.S. espionage activities as well, and the results have been damaged diplomatic relations, and plans by the Brazilian government for a new privacy law and electronic counter-measures. The magazine noted,

Brazil now plans to introduce a law that will force companies such as Google and Facebook to store their data inside Brazil’s borders, rather than on servers in the US, making these international companies subject to Brazilian data privacy laws. The Brazilian government is also developing a new encryption system to protect its own data against hacking.

A separate article published by Der Spiegel also outlined an equipment-based program supporting TAO called “ANT,” which creates James Bond-style espionage equipment: “A document viewed by SPIEGEL resembling a product catalog reveals that an NSA division called ANT has burrowed its way into nearly all the security architecture made by the major players in the industry.” Der Spiegel described a few of the items in that so-called catalog:

Some of the equipment available is quite inexpensive. A rigged monitor cable that allows “TAO personnel to see what is displayed on the targeted monitor,” for example, is available for just $30. But an “active GSM base station” – a tool that makes it possible to mimic a mobile phone tower and thus monitor cell phones – costs a full $40,000. Computer bugging devices disguised as normal USB plugs, capable of sending and receiving data via radio undetected, are available in packs of 50 for over $1 million.” Another division of ANT is software-based espionage. One software program created by ANT allows seamless surveillance even if a computer’s hard drive is wiped and a new operating system is installed.

The official response to these latest revelations has been muted. An NSA official told Der Speigel, “We are not going to comment publicly on every specific alleged intelligence activity, and as a matter of policy we have made clear that the United States gathers foreign intelligence of the type gathered by all nations.” But unofficially, NSA officials have taken a tough line on Snowden. NSA Director Michael Hayden termed the NSA “infinitely weaker” as a result of Snowden’s revelations in a December 29 interview on the CBS program Face the Nation. Because of his claims to damaging the NSA, Hayden labelled Snowden a “traitor.”

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