The TAO of the NSA: Specialized Hacking Team Gets the ‘Ungettable’

Der Spiegel report outlines how a team of highly skilled hackers intercepts and steals data from around the world

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The U.S. National Security Agency uses a specialized team of hackers to break into computer hardware and exploit loopholes in software like Microsoft’s internal reporting system, according to a new report.

German magazine Der Spiegel published an extensive story on Sunday, based on a cache of NSA documents, detailing the Tailored Access Operations (TAO). The unit’s mission is described as “getting the ungettable” by using James Bond–like methods, including computer-monitor cables specially designed to record typing in real time, USB sticks containing radio transmitters to broadcast stolen data over airwaves, intercepting laptops before they’re delivered and faux base stations set up to intercept mobile-phone signals.

The unit, formed in 1997, has hacked 258 targets in nearly every country in the world, according to Der Spiegel.

The team also steals data by exploiting Internet and software vulnerabilities in companies like Cisco Systems and China’s Huawei Technologies. One of the more startling revelations was that TAO breaks into Windows-based computers by scouring Microsoft’s crash reports. Microsoft did not immediately comment but is one of several U.S. tech companies seeking more government transparency about the NSA’s surveillance methods.

Der Spiegel did not identify the source of the NSA documents, but has previously published reports based on documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. One of the article’s authors was American documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, a contact close to Snowden.

[Der Spiegel]