A special National Security Administration team of hackers is finding creative, and sometimes old-fashioned, methods of keeping an eye on what its targets are up to, Der Spiegel reports
A story in the German magazine on Sunday reported on the NSA's Tailored Access Operations (TAO), which exploits hardware vulnerabilities, hijack Microsoft's internal reporting system and intercepts computer deliveries to install malware.
TAO's team of top hackers target the toughest targets, according to NSA documents viewed by the magazine, focusing on "getting the ungettable." The team uses computer monitor cables specially modified to record what is being typed across the screen, USB sticks secretly fitted with radio transmitters to broadcast stolen data over the airwaves, and fake base stations intended to intercept mobile phone signals on the go.
The hackers also take advantage of vulnerabilities in software distributed by leading companies infect target computers with malicious software.
One of TAO's methods of finding weaknesses in a target's system is through Microsoft's crash reports, which often pop up on a user's screen when a program fails. A window will ask users if they wish to send a report to Microsoft to help the company fix bugs in the system.
Though the method is of little use, the team appeared to enjoy poking fun at the company by replacing the regular message in an internal graphic with the words, "This information may be intercepted by a foreign sigint [signals intelligence] system to gather detailed information and better exploit your machine."
In addition to the high tech methods of getting into computers to monitor them, TAO members also use the low tech method of simply intercepting computers ordered by their targets and manually installing spyware before sending it on to its recipient.
One of the more sophisticated methods of attack involves a covert system running alongside the Internet. Someone trying, or instance, to reach a LinkedIn page would instead get a page from the NSA's system which would contain not only the information from the LinkedIn page, but also a package of spyware already tailored to the computer's identified vulnerabilities.
TAO employees typically target certain individuals, which then allows them to get further into an organization's system.
Der Spiegel did not say where it obtained the NSA documents on which its story was based, but The Associated Press noted that one of the article's authors is American documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, who, along with Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald, has been one of the main contacts of NSA leaker Edward Snowden.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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