The National Security Agency has a lot of employees divided into many departments, but its hacking unit may be the most important of them all. The purpose of the Tailored Access Operations (TAO) is to infiltrate computers around the world and break into the most protected data centers.
According to Der Spiegel, the elite hackers’ team is specialized in “getting the ungettable.” As an unnamed official told the magazine, the unit obtained “some of the most significant intelligence” the United States has ever seen.
The hackers conducted thousands of operations worldwide. For instance, back in 2010, files indicate that they ran 279 operations.
Aside from infiltrating worldwide computer networks, TAO also specializes in intercepting computer deliveries around the world and infecting them with malware or adding hardware that helps it spy on its targets.
Der Spiegel writes that the department has access to a wide range of high tech gadgets used for its operations, including monitor cables modified to record what’s being typed on screen and radio transmitters fitted in USB sticks.
It looks like targets include firewalls from Juniper Networks, hard drives from Western Digital, Maxtor, Samsung and Seagate, as well as networking gear from Cisco and Huawei. Dell equipment is also on NSA’s internal catalog, but there’s no mention about the type of product. All these are set in place for computers that are intercepted by the agency, effectively giving agents quick access to a particular target.
The TAO hacker team also worked in rather traditional ways – by exploiting vulnerabilities. It looks like one of their methods involves working their way through Microsoft’s bugs. Specifically, they would go through the crash reports sent by targeted Windows users when an internal problem would occur and exploit the weakness found there.
As mentioned, the agency also created a large number of Trojans that enabled it to get easy access to information on the computers of its targets, giving them names such as “Angry Neighbor,” “Howlermonkey” and “Waterwitch.”