Documents Reveal Top NSA Hacking Unit

The NSA's TAO hacking unit is considered to be the intelligence agency's top secret weapon. It maintains its own covert network, infiltrates computers around the world and even intercepts shipping deliveries to plant back doors in electronics ordered by those it is targeting.
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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."
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Indeed, TAO specialists have directly accessed the protected networks of democratically elected leaders of countries. 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. Achieving this last goal required a "sustained TAO operation," one document states.

This TAO unit is born of the Internet -- created in 1997, a time when not even 2 percent of the world's population had Internet access and no one had yet thought of Facebook, YouTube or Twitter. From the time the first TAO employees moved into offices at NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland, the unit was housed in a separate wing, set apart from the rest of the agency. Their task was clear from the beginning -- to work around the clock to find ways to hack into global communications traffic.
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Soon the NSA spies had knowledge of the agency's servers, including IP addresses, computers used for email traffic and individual addresses of diverse employees. They also obtained diagrams of the security agencies' structures, including video surveillance. It appears the operation continued for years until SPIEGEL first reported on it in October.

The technical term for this type of activity is "Computer Network Exploitation" (CNE). The goal here is to "subvert endpoint devices," according to an internal NSA presentation that SPIEGEL has viewed. The presentation goes on to list nearly all the types of devices that run our digital lives -- "servers, workstations, firewalls, routers, handsets, phone switches, SCADA systems, etc."
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Having Fun at Microsoft's Expense

One example of the sheer creativity with which the TAO spies approach their work can be seen in a hacking method they use that exploits the error-proneness of Microsoft's Windows. Every user of the operating system is familiar with the annoying window that occasionally pops up on screen when an internal problem is detected, an automatic message that prompts the user to report the bug to the manufacturer and to restart the program. These crash reports offer TAO specialists a welcome opportunity to spy on computers.

When TAO selects a computer somewhere in the world as a target and enters its unique identifiers (an IP address, for example) into the corresponding database, intelligence agents are then automatically notified any time the operating system of that computer crashes and its user receives the prompt to report the problem to Microsoft. An internal presentation suggests it is NSA's powerful XKeyscore spying tool that is used to fish these crash reports out of the massive sea of Internet traffic.

The automated crash reports are a "neat way" to gain "passive access" to a machine, the presentation continues. Passive access means that, initially, only data the computer sends out into the Internet is captured and saved, but the computer itself is not yet manipulated. Still, even this passive access to error messages provides valuable insights into problems with a targeted person's computer and, thus, information on security holes that might be exploitable for planting malware or spyware on the unwitting victim's computer.

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It maintains a sophisticated toolbox known internally by the name "QUANTUMTHEORY." "Certain QUANTUM missions have a success rate of as high as 80%, where spam is less than 1%," one internal NSA presentation states.

A comprehensive internal presentation titled "QUANTUM CAPABILITIES," which SPIEGEL has viewed, lists virtually every popular Internet service provider as a target, including Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter and YouTube. "NSA QUANTUM has the greatest success against Yahoo, Facebook and static IP addresses," it states. The presentation also notes that the NSA has been unable to employ this method to target users of Google services. Apparently, that can only be done by Britain's GCHQ intelligence service, which has acquired QUANTUM tools from the NSA.

A favored tool of intelligence service hackers is "QUANTUMINSERT." GCHQ workers used this method to attack the computers of employees at partly government-held Belgian telecommunications company Belgacom, in order to use their computers to penetrate even further into the company's networks. The NSA, meanwhile, used the same technology to target high-ranking members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) at the organization's Vienna headquarters. In both cases, the trans-Atlantic spying consortium gained unhindered access to valuable economic data using these tools.

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Live free, or I f'ing kill you.

In this way, the intelligence service seeks to identify and track its targets based on their digital footprints. These identifiers could include certain email addresses or website cookies set on a person's computer. Of course, a cookie doesn't automatically identify a person, but it can if it includes additional information like an email address. In that case, a cookie becomes something like the web equivalent of a fingerprint.
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Live free, or I f'ing kill you.

Once TAO teams have gathered sufficient data on their targets' habits, they can shift into attack mode, programming the QUANTUM systems to perform this work in a largely automated way. If a data packet featuring the email address or cookie of a target passes through a cable or router monitored by the NSA, the system sounds the alarm. It determines what website the target person is trying to access and then activates one of the intelligence service's covert servers, known by the codename FOXACID.

This NSA server coerces the user into connecting to NSA covert systems rather than the intended sites. In the case of Belgacom engineers, instead of reaching the LinkedIn page they were actually trying to visit, they were also directed to FOXACID servers housed on NSA networks. Undetected by the user, the manipulated page transferred malware already custom tailored to match security holes on the target person's computer.

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Live free, or I f'ing kill you.