(NaturalNews) Federal judges may disagree about whether the National Security Agency's massive collection of Americans' data is constitutional, but what about the nation's premier spy service intercepting personal computers en route to purchasers to install spyware? That may be the next case up before a federal court at some point in the future.
According to the German news website Spiegel Online, the NSA has a special unit, called Tailored Access Operations (TAO), just for this purpose:
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.
'Why doesn't my garage door work?'
Germany, whose leaders were extremely upset that the U.S. was reportedly conducting surveillance on Berlin and a number of other European allies, has a special interest in overly broad, authoritarian surveillance - having had half the country ruled by communists until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Hence Spiegel's extensive report, which continued:
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.
The garage door incident made Texans - and Americans across the country who had learned of it - realize just how extensively the NSA permeated our everyday lives. And in the years since, Americans, of course, have learned much more.
For instance, as Spiegel reported, the spy agency has maintained a huge presence at Lackland Air Force Base, which is also in San Antonio, where it employs some 2,000 people. And some years ago, in 2005, the NSA took over a former Sony computer chip plant in the western part of San Antonio, where the Alamo is located.
The purchase of the chip plant, and its extensive rehabilitation by the agency, was part of its huge expansion following the 9/11 attacks. A major part of the NSA's extended authority came from the first piece of post-9/11 security legislation, the USA Patriot Act; Sect. 215 of the act has been used to justify the massive, widespread NSA surveillance (which was also occurring during the Bush administration, by the way).
'Getting the un-gettable'
As far as the TAO goes, the unit is apparently housed at one of the two main buildings at the former Sony plant, Spiegel reported, noting that the special unit has grown the fastest in the past few years and has benefited the most from NSA's overall expansion of powers and scope.
The online magazine reported that, based on documents that it reviewed regarding the NSA, the TAO is the NSA's top unit. It is something like a squad of special operatives who are called in when normal access to a target is blocked or otherwise made inaccessible by traditional means:
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.
As to intercepting personal computers and other devices, Spiegel said, "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."
And once the technology is acquired, "agents carefully open the package in order to load malware onto the electronics, or even install hardware components that can provide backdoor access for the intelligence agencies. All subsequent steps can then be conducted from the comfort of a remote computer," the magazine reported.
Just how often this is done remains a mystery, but based on the NSA's blanket spying authority - thanks to the USA Patriot Act - and the inherent growth in size and power of this special unit, it's anybody's guess.