The New Big Brother: The NSA’s Hacking Unit

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You probably have heard a lot about the National Security Agency (NSA) over the last year or so, as the scope and depth of the agency’s spying apparatus has been leaked to the press by whistleblower Edward Snowden and others.

Just last month, the Washington Post published a bombshell report which revealed that the NSA hacked into Google’s and Yahoo’s data centers, taking millions of private user records each day for analysis.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, a recent report in Der Spiegel indicates that the NSA has been able to access supposedly protected information from top foreign leaders and U.S. citizens.

The NSA’s Secret Hacking Unit

The NSA has always been a big government agency, but after the 9/11 attacks, it expanded massively, and now has a budget of nearly $50 billion. The agency’s hacking unit, which comprises more than 2,000 people, is called the Tailored Access Operations (TAO) and is considered to be the intelligence agency’s secret weapon.

The TOA unit was founded in 1997, and from the start, it was housed in a separate part of the NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland (pictured at left via Google Earth). Its task is simple: work 24/7 to find ways to hack into global communications. Targeting counterterrorism activities, including cyber-attacks and traditional espionage, the TAO has many tools at its disposal that allows it to exploit the technical weaknesses of the IT industry. According to internal NSA documents, TAO’s aggressive attacks are an explicit part of its tasks. That’s another way of saying that the TAO’s hackers have been given a government green light to carry out their tasks.

The Scope of the NSA’s Dragnet

The NSA allegedly gained access to the protected WiFi networks of the democratically-elected governments of Germany, Brazil and Mexico, according to Der Spiegel. The NSA infiltrated telecommunication networks and spied on supposedly encrypted Blackberry messages from top government officials. Taking it a step further, the unit also gained access to government officials’ email accounts, and then their entire network. This gave the TAO access to servers, firewalls, workstations, phone switches and handsets. Anyone who has access to these components can knock out critical components of a country’s infrastructure.

One must ask: how would we feel if another country illegally gained access to our country’s infrastructure and had the ability to wreak widespread damage to our economy?

The NSA and WiFi

The TAO unit even has the ability to install surveillance apparatus, malware, and spyware via WiFi networks from distances of eight miles or more. NSA vans and drones can be used to get into range and agents even intercept packages to directly install these spying devices into hardware and software.

The scope of the NSA’s powers to legally spy on nearly anyone around the world at any time is just one more reason to be concerned about the erosion of privacy in our new digital age.

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Jared Howe

Jared Howe is PRIVATE WiFi’s Senior Manager, Product Marketing Communications. Working in high tech for over 15 years, Jared currently lives in Seattle with his wife, daughter, and their two cats.