The NSA's Elite Hacker Squad Is Suffering in the Post-Snowden Era

Over the past couple of decades, the NSA has gone to crazy lengths to tap into computer networks of friends and enemies, alike. Backdoors, shell companies, repurposed hacktivists—they've tried everything, and to great success. That is, until Edward Snowden blew the lid off it all.

Foreign Policy just published a deep dive into the many, sometimes crazy methods the NSA employs to spy on everyone. Perhaps most disconcerting are the activities of the Office of Tailored Access Operations (TAO) which serves as the agency's ultra elite cyberespionage unit. For the past dozen years, these daring devils have inserted top secret, undetectable spy software into the hard drives of at least 80,000 computers around the world. This enables TAO analysts to read what's on the hard drives of commercial and official computers at will and, sometimes, even crack their encryption codes.

Lately, TAO's operations have become especially dodgy. FP's Matthew M. Aid explains:

In 2012, the group reportedly compromised the encryption system used by an important G8 country to transmit sensitive diplomatic communications via satellite to its embassies around the world. … And finally, sources report that TAO has successfully compromised the privacy protection systems currently used on a range of 4G cell phones and hand-held devices, thanks in large part to help from a major American telecommunications company.

Yikes. NSA spies breaking into your cell phone? A "major American telecommunications company" helping them? That's next level.

Unfortunately for TAO (and probably fortunately for the privacy of American citizens) this summer's Snowden revelations dragged much of this sort of clandestine activity into the light. Collecting millions of phone records, scooping up hundreds of millions address books and buddy lists, mining data from just about every tech service you use—all that business is out in open now. Aid reports that "industry sources familiar with TAO say that the organization's future prospects have dimmed somewhat" as foreign governments and companies are changing how they store and transmit information.

The good news for the NSA is that plenty of its activity was not included in the Snowden cache, especially stuff related to their decryption efforts. The 29-year-old former operative may have take the wind out of TAO's sails for a time, but frankly, the office is very capable of coming up with new ways to spy on people. That's what makes them the ultra elite. [FP]

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