New Report Profiles NSA's Master Hacker Division, TAO

The group boasts a spy-movie-style gadget catalog and can crack into virtually any system.

New Report Profiles NSA's Master Hacker Division, TAO
Wikimedia Commons

The latest revelation on the NSA's spying practices takes hacking to blockbuster movie levels, profiling the agency's elite hacking squad known as TAO.

The Office of Tailored Access Operations is the NSA's team of mostly young master hackers, who are tasked with gaining access to the most difficult targets. (Via Wikimedia Commons)

The new report published Sunday by Der Spiegel described the group as "something like a squad of plumbers that can be called in when normal access to a target is blocked."

They do this by looking for any vulnerabilities in the target's system. Here's an example: Say the target is using Windows, and the operating system sends an error report to Microsoft. TAO can intercept that report, figure out the computer's weak spots and then bombard it with malware.

Or say the target is ordering a computer or other device online. The group can intercept the device in the mail, install hardware or software that will allow them to gain access, then re-package the order and send it on its way. (Via Amazon)

An editor for Boing Boing comments: "I know an ex-MI5 whistleblower who only buys computers by walking into a store at random and plucking them off the shelf, to prevent this sort of attack. When I learned about this practice, it sounded a little paranoid to me, but it seems that it's actually a very reasonable precaution."

The group can gain access to networking equipment made by Cisco, Western Digital, Juniper, Dell and many others. But here's where it really starts to sound like a spy movie.

According to a second report from Der Spiegel, NSA employees have access to a 50-page catalog of electronic break-in tools, designed to crack pretty much any system out there. It's comparable to the James Bond franchise's Q Branch.

These include "computer monitor cables specially designed to record typing in real-time, USB sticks containing radio transmitters to broadcast stolen data over airwaves ... and faux base stations set up to intercept mobile phone signals." (Via Time)

According to the report, TAO is one of the fastest-growing divisions within the NSA, recruiting hundreds of hackers to add to its ranks over the last five years.