For more on SCADAs, please see the following previous posts:
Exclusive: Cyberattack leaves natural gas pipelines vulnerable to sabotage
UPDATE 3: U.S. probes cyber attack on water system
Security backdoor found in China-made US military chip
The NSA’s TAO hacking unit is considered to be the intelligence agency’s top secret weapon. It maintains its own covert network, infiltrates computers around the world and even intercepts shipping deliveries to plant back doors in electronics ordered by those it is targeting.
In January 2010, numerous homeowners in San Antonio, Texas, stood baffled in front of their closed garage doors. They wanted to drive to work or head off to do their grocery shopping, but their garage door openers had gone dead, leaving them stranded. No matter how many times they pressed the buttons, the doors didn’t budge. The problem primarily affected residents in the western part of the city, around Military Drive and the interstate highway known as Loop 410.
In the United States, a country of cars and commuters, the mysterious garage door problem quickly became an issue for local politicians. Ultimately, the municipal government solved the riddle. Fault for the error lay with the United States’ foreign intelligence service, the National Security Agency, which has offices in San Antonio. Officials at the agency were forced to admit that one of the NSA’s radio antennas was broadcasting at the same frequency as the garage door openers. Embarrassed officials at the intelligence agency promised to resolve the issue as quickly as possible, and soon the doors began opening again.
On-Call Digital Plumbers
One of the two main buildings at the former plant has since housed a sophisticated NSA unit, one that has benefited the most from this expansion and has grown the fastest in recent years — the Office of Tailored Access Operations, or TAO. This is the NSA’s top operative unit — something like a squad of plumbers that can be called in when normal access to a target is blocked.
According to internal NSA documents viewed by SPIEGEL, these on-call digital plumbers are involved in many sensitive operations conducted by American intelligence agencies. TAO’s area of operations ranges from counterterrorism to cyber attacks to traditional espionage. The documents reveal just how diversified the tools at TAO’s disposal have become — and also how it exploits the technical weaknesses of the IT industry, from Microsoft to Cisco and Huawei, to carry out its discreet and efficient attacks.
Workers at NSA’s target selection office, which also had Angela Merkel in its sights in 2002 before she became chancellor, sent TAO a list of officials within the Mexican Secretariat they thought might make interesting targets. As a first step, TAO penetrated the target officials’ email accounts, a relatively simple job. Next, they infiltrated the entire network and began capturing data.
Soon the NSA spies had knowledge of the agency’s servers, including IP addresses, computers used for email traffic and individual addresses of diverse employees. They also obtained diagrams of the security agencies’ structures, including video surveillance. It appears the operation continued for years until SPIEGEL first reported on it in October.
The technical term for this type of activity is “Computer Network Exploitation” (CNE). The goal here is to “subvert endpoint devices,” according to an internal NSA presentation that SPIEGEL has viewed. The presentation goes on to list nearly all the types of devices that run our digital lives — “servers, workstations, firewalls, routers, handsets, phone switches, SCADA systems, etc.” SCADAs are industrial control systems used in factories, as well as in power plants. Anyone who can bring these systems under their control has the potential to knock out parts of a country’s critical infrastructure.
Having Fun at Microsoft’s Expense
One example of the sheer creativity with which the TAO spies approach their work can be seen in a hacking method they use that exploits the error-proneness of Microsoft’s Windows. Every user of the operating system is familiar with the annoying window that occasionally pops up on screen when an internal problem is detected, an automatic message that prompts the user to report the bug to the manufacturer and to restart the program. These crash reports offer TAO specialists a welcome opportunity to spy on computers.
When TAO selects a computer somewhere in the world as a target and enters its unique identifiers (an IP address, for example) into the corresponding database, intelligence agents are then automatically notified any time the operating system of that computer crashes and its user receives the prompt to report the problem to Microsoft. An internal presentation suggests it is NSA’s powerful XKeyscore spying tool that is used to fish these crash reports out of the massive sea of Internet traffic.
The automated crash reports are a “neat way” to gain “passive access” to a machine, the presentation continues. Passive access means that, initially, only data the computer sends out into the Internet is captured and saved, but the computer itself is not yet manipulated. Still, even this passive access to error messages provides valuable insights into problems with a targeted person’s computer and, thus, information on security holes that might be exploitable for planting malware or spyware on the unwitting victim’s computer.
According to details in Washington’s current budget plan for the US intelligence services, around 85,000 computers worldwide are projected to be infiltrated by the NSA specialists by the end of this year. By far the majority of these “implants” are conducted by TAO teams via the Internet.
Tapping Undersea Cables
At the same time, it is in no way true to say that the NSA has its sights set exclusively on select individuals. Of even greater interest are entire networks and network providers, such as the fiber optic cables that direct a large share of global Internet traffic along the world’s ocean floors.
One document labeled “top secret” and “not for foreigners” describes the NSA’s success in spying on the “SEA-ME-WE-4” cable system. This massive underwater cable bundle connects Europe with North Africa and the Gulf states and then continues on through Pakistan and India, all the way to Malaysia and Thailand. The cable system originates in southern France, near Marseille. Among the companies that hold ownership stakes in it are France Telecom, now known as Orange and still partly government-owned, and Telecom Italia Sparkle.
Full article: Inside TAO: Documents Reveal Top NSA Hacking Unit (Spiegel Online)