spy games

The NSA Can Intercept and Bug Online Purchases

FILE - This Sept. 19, 2007, file photo, shows the National Security Agency building at Fort Meade, Md. The government is secretly collecting the telephone records of millions of U.S. customers of Verizon under a top-secret court order, according to the Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Cailf., chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. The Obama administration is defending the National Security Agency's need to collect such records, but critics are calling it a huge over-reach. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)
Photo: Charles Dharapak

Der Spiegel has released yet another Edward Snowden document-based report on the NSA. This one focuses on the organization’s Office of Tailored Access Operations, an elite squad of “digital plumbers” responsible for especially difficult hacking jobs on “servers, workstations, firewalls, routers, handsets, phone switches, SCADA systems, etc.” According to the materials reviewed by Der Spiegel, over the last five years, the unit (known as TAO) has accessed 258 targets in nearly every country in the world, including the computer networks of foreign leaders. 

One of TAO’s spying strategies is breaking into computers via Microsoft error reports. When the unit decides on a target, its spies enter the machine’s IP address or other identifying information into a database and waits for the computer to crash. If the user accepts the computer’s offer to send an error report to Microsoft, TAO can gain “passive access” to the machine, which means the NSA can record all the data it sends into the Internet. “Although the method appears to have little importance in practical terms, the NSA’s agents still seem to enjoy it because it allows them to have a bit of a laugh at the expense of the Seattle-based software giant,” the magazine notes.

Most interesting, though, is TAO’s continued reliance on old-fashioned techniques to complete certain operations. When the NSA’s hackers can access a target online, they will intercept deliveries of computers or other electronics. Those items are then loaded with malware or “hardware components that can provide backdoor access” to the NSA before they’re put back in the mail. According to NSA documents, some of TAO’s “most productive operations” have been carried out that way, so don’t ever let anyone tell you that the high-tech method is always the superior one.