December 30, 2013
NSA Intercepting Computer Deliveries, Implanting Spyware: Report
Gerard LeBlond for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
According to a report Sunday from the German publication Der Spiegel, a special hacking unit from the US National Security Agency (NSA), intercepts deliveries of new computer equipment and plants spyware.
The Office of Tailored Access Operations (TAO) is one of the NSA’s most successful operations for infiltrating computer systems. Der Spiegel wrote, “If a target person, agency or company orders a new computer or related accessories, for example, TAO can divert the shipping delivery to its own secret workshops.”
These workshops are called “load stations,” where they install hardware or malware components to give the NSA access to the computer. The Washington Post and The Guardian had previously gained similar information that was leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Although he was not mentioned in this report, he was contacted by a co-author, filmmaker Laura Poitras.
The leaked documents from Snowden have forced the US government to review NSA’s spying tactics. Technology companies are asking for robust privacy controls because the agency's practice of tampering with their networks could damage their businesses.
The report includes what Der Spiegel portrays as a mail-order catalog. The catalog offers backdoors into the hardware and software offered by Cisco, Juniper Networks, Dell, Samsung and other prominent technology developers. The report also states that error reports sent to Microsoft can be intercepted and can attack the system with Trojans and malware.
In a response to the report, senior vice president John Stewart of Cisco wrote, “we are deeply concerned with anything that may impact the integrity of our products or our customers' networks,” and that the company does “not work with any government to weaken our products for exploitation.”
Other companies have also let their concerns be known including Microsoft, saying the agency was an “advanced persistent threat.”
“Microsoft does not provide any government with direct or unfettered access to our customer's data,” a company representative said in an email to the Associated Press on Sunday. “We would have significant concerns if the allegations about government actions are true.”
“Juniper Networks recently became aware of, and is currently investigating, alleged security compromises of technology products made by a number of companies, including Juniper,” the company said in an email. “We take allegations of this nature very seriously and are working actively to address any possible exploit paths.”
According to CNET, another division of the NSA -- Advanced or Access Network Technology (ANT) -- uses tools from the catalog to access electronic devices.
The report wrote, “For nearly every lock, ANT seems to have a key in its toolbox. And no matter what walls companies erect, the NSA's specialists seem already to have gotten past them.”
ANT places code on a chip on the motherboard that operates on startup of the machine. This spyware is almost completely invisible to security systems and can still function even if a new operating system is installed.
The only response to the report the NSA has released is that the TAO is vital to national defense.
“Tailored Access Operations (TAO) is a unique national asset that is on the front lines of enabling NSA to defend the nation and its allies,” the agency said in a statement. “We won't discuss specific allegations regarding TAO's mission, but its work is centered on computer network exploitation in support of foreign intelligence collection.”