To say that there’s a lot going on at the NSA that the general public is unaware of is something of an understatement. As people like Edward Snowden have long proven, the NSA has its hands in just about everything. As the world’s leading most authority on surveillance, there is very little around the globe that they DON’T have their hands in at any given moment. However, the true extent of that reach has gone largely unnoticed – until now.
Over the course of the last few years, it has been revealed that the NSA actually has something of a “secret toolbox” that produces specialty equipment in nearly every category you can think of. From spyware designed to infiltrate even the most heavily protected computers to USB sticks that double as devices to siphon information from any device they’re connected to, this “catalog” reads like something out of a classic 1960s spy movie come to life.
The NSA’s Tailored Access Operations Division
Much of the gear in this “secret toolbox” comes by way of the NSA’s TAO, or “Tailored Access Operations” division. When an NSA official needs to crack an uncrackable security system or infiltrate a particularly sophisticated network, they turn to the experts at TAO to arm them with what they need. TAO is something of a “nuclear option” for the NSA – they’re who you turn to when conventional methods just aren’t cutting it.
In an internal NSA document obtained by Spiegel from 2004, a particular strain of spyware was described dubbed “VALIDATOR.” The purpose of “VALIDATOR” was to be able to provide a unique backdoor entry point into the personal computers (remember – tablets weren’t around in 2004, let alone smartphones as we know them today) of people who were of national interest. Most notably, the definition of “natural interest” is specified as “including BUT NOT LIMITED to targets of terrorism and related activities.”
What’s interesting is that many of the items in the NSA’s secret toolbox are geared toward specific types of devices and systems. The NSA doesn’t just have a specific strain of malware to break into a mobile phone – they have one for the iPhone, one for the Android platform, etc. This makes sense, as often everything from device hardware to the operating systems that power them can vary wildly from one model to the next.
Part of the success in this area comes down to the fact that the NSA targets products made by popular American manufacturers – the types of devices that the people they want to spy on are probably using – and finds a way to break into them directly. The NSA offers malware and other hardware-based spying devices for desktop computers made by companies like Dell or Hewlett-Packard, for example.
While many of the devices in the NSA’s secret toolbox are predictably sophisticated, some of them are downright simple. One item is a “rigged monitor cable,” for example, that replicates the information being displayed on the monitor of a person being watched onto a secondary screen manned by NSA personnel. Armed with only bare-bones technology, all one would have to do is replace a regular monitor cable with this facsimile, and everything they do online could be spied on – no hacking required.
Other examples include a base station that makes it possible to mimic the cell phone tower of a network that a target is using, allowing someone to see exactly what they’re doing on their phone at all times WITHOUT requiring physical access to the device.
At the end of the day, all of this goes to underline just how far surveillance technology has come in a short period of time. The next time someone tells you that a particular spying technique is “too far-fetched to really exist,” just remember – when it comes to the NSA’s secret toolbox, you don’t know the half of it.