TAO and ANT: The NSA's "Office of Tailored Access Operations"

Der Spiegel has several feature articles this week on the NSA's backdoor program TAO, which stands for "Tailored Access Operations."

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.


Where are the Tao units?

There are now TAO units in Wahiawa, Hawaii; Fort Gordon, Georgia; at the NSA's outpost at Buckley Air Force Base, near Denver, Colorado; at its headquarters in Fort Meade; and, of course, in San Antonio.

Der Spiegel contacted the NSA for a response to its article, which is based on documents it received. Here's the statement the NSA sent back:

"Tailored Access Operations is a unique national asset that is on the front lines of enabling NSA to defend the nation and its allies." The statement added that TAO's "work is centered on computer network exploitation in support of foreign intelligence collection." The officials said they would not discuss specific allegations regarding TAO's mission.

As for who TAO hires to do its business:

Their job is breaking into, manipulating and exploiting computer networks, making them hackers and civil servants in one. Many resemble geeks -- and act the part, too.

In a related article, Der Spiegel describes ANT, which presumably stands for "Advanced or Access Network Technology" -- which it describes as a unit that functions as a carpenter to TAO, building its tools. ANT has a 50 page "catalog" of its offerings, described as an "NSA toolbox."

In cases where TAO's usual hacking and data-skimming methods don't suffice, ANT workers step in with their special tools, penetrating networking equipment, monitoring mobile phones and computers and diverting or even modifying data.

You can view many of ANT's offerings here.

The Der Spiegel article on ANT was written by Jacob Applebaum. Jacob was a presenter at this week's 30th Chaos Computer Club conference in Hamburg (Glenn Greenwald was the keynote speaker.) In Applebaum's talk, he showed slides of how the NSA has compromised Dell business servers, Apple's iPhone, the sim cards of GSM phones, and much much more.

More from Applebaum: The NSA can hijack your wifi from 8 miles away.

Among those taking the Der Spiegel articles seriously: Cisco.

"On Monday, December 30th, Der Spiegel magazine published additional information about the techniques allegedly used by NSA TAO to infiltrate the technologies of numerous IT companies," wrote senior VP John Stewart. "As a result of this new information coming to light, the Cisco Product Security Incident Response Team (PSIRT) has opened an investigation."

Other allegations: The NSA is intercepting laptops bought online to install spy malware.

According to Der Spiegel, the NSA's TAO group is able to divert shipping deliveries to its own "secret workshops" in a method called interdiction, where agents load malware onto the electronics or install malicious hardware that can give US intelligence agencies remote access.

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  • Display: Sort:
    Uncle Sam... (5.00 / 2) (#2)
    by kdog on Tue Dec 31, 2013 at 08:53:43 AM EST
    has come up with some winner codenames and acronyms in it's day...but TAO might take the cake.

    Tao...the absolute principle underlying the universe, combining within itself the principles of yin and yang and signifying the way, or code of behavior, that is in harmony with the natural order.

    TAO couldn't be anymore un-tao if it tried.

    That's NewSpeak, Kdog. (none / 0) (#3)
    by Mr Natural on Tue Dec 31, 2013 at 10:02:50 AM EST
    This is the new order, the new normal.  

    One hundred years from now, Orwell will be regarded as an Apparatchik's Machiavelli, 1984 repackaged as the Idiot's Guide to Dictatorship, and possessing a paper copy of the Constitution's original wording will get you deleted.


    Not Necessarily True Kdog (none / 0) (#4)
    by squeaky on Tue Dec 31, 2013 at 10:36:02 AM EST
    People who are skilled in the TAO, do their job with the utmost of ease as they are in harmony with themselves and the world.

    Cook Ting was cutting up an ox for Lord Wen-hui. As every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee -- zip! zoop! He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing the dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to the Ching-shou music.

    "Ah, this is marvelous!" said Lord Wen-hui. "Imagine skill reaching such heights!"

    Cook Ting laid down his knife and replied, "What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now -- now I go at it by spirit and don't look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and following things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.....



    The Tao of Tyranny? n/t (none / 0) (#6)
    by kdog on Tue Dec 31, 2013 at 11:37:14 AM EST
    Well (none / 0) (#7)
    by squeaky on Tue Dec 31, 2013 at 12:16:32 PM EST
    I was thinking that the effortless ease that Taoist masters would hack into the network was analagous to he butcher who was working for Lord  Wen-Hui...

    In that the choice of TAO is apt.

    OK... yes it is also twisted.. but not uninteresting, imo.


    Not sure why a TAO unit is located (none / 0) (#1)
    by fishcamp on Tue Dec 31, 2013 at 07:01:34 AM EST
    in the little town of Wahiawa, Hawaii which is a surfer community on the North Shore of Oahu.  Maybe Donald knows more about this.

    Keeps your employees happy (none / 0) (#10)
    by Dadler on Tue Dec 31, 2013 at 01:53:37 PM EST
    That was the first thing that came to my mind.

    Who knows though, Uncle Sam is a bizarre cat, maybe there's a black site down in some old lava tubes.


    Who else was in Hawaii? (none / 0) (#14)
    by Militarytracy on Wed Jan 01, 2014 at 01:12:12 PM EST
    Snowden :).  Now might really be a good time to pardon that guy.  Or not :)

    Is one of your New Year's resolutions (none / 0) (#16)
    by oculus on Wed Jan 01, 2014 at 01:29:43 PM EST
    cock-eyed optimism?

    That was last years :) (5.00 / 1) (#19)
    by Militarytracy on Wed Jan 01, 2014 at 07:11:01 PM EST
    Pardon? (none / 0) (#17)
    by Politalkix on Wed Jan 01, 2014 at 01:58:26 PM EST
    For all you know, he may find black widows more intriguing than pole dancers. He may be really needed in Russia at this time to prevent security breaches involving the Sochi Olympics, not just for public relations reasons.

    I thought he expressed interest (none / 0) (#20)
    by Militarytracy on Wed Jan 01, 2014 at 07:14:48 PM EST
    In coming home?  I admit I haven't read anything Snowden since before thanksgiving.  Too much going on in my real life.  I have one more big birthday party to produce in 10 days and then I can collapse.

    And I've expressed interest in becoming.... (5.00 / 1) (#21)
    by Dadler on Wed Jan 01, 2014 at 08:14:21 PM EST
    ...a billionaire. About as likely as Snowden actually returning, IMO, and I don't blame the kid. Daniel Ellsberg would've fled in today's Homeland Security State, never would've taken the lottery-like chance he'd get a fair shake in court. And I certainly remember the commies were viewed as just as much of a threat as terrorists today. After all, them dirty effing Reds had a real army and plenty of nukes (and half the Screen Actor's Guild for god's sake!).

    Happy New Year, Tracy! Hope you survive your last party and get a long nap after that. Peace to the MT family and associated posse.


    I don't know Dadler (none / 0) (#22)
    by Militarytracy on Wed Jan 01, 2014 at 11:28:22 PM EST
    The President is getting hell from internet CEOs and even some folks associated with the NSA.  They say pardon him, get it over with, make the deal and end the leaking.  The petition for the White House to pardon him passed the 50,000 signature point twice over now.

    End the leaking (none / 0) (#23)
    by Dadler on Thu Jan 02, 2014 at 07:20:23 AM EST
    That's the problem. The leaking is the only way the American people learned the massive extent to which they are considered the enemy, too. The "we know the dangers, you civvies simply don't have a clue and don't need to" mindset still rules, and it's displaying its ineptitude like a little kid showing off a new pair of Superman undies.

    I am getting really sick of (none / 0) (#24)
    by Militarytracy on Thu Jan 02, 2014 at 12:58:34 PM EST
    Your characterizations of everything I comment.  I am a civvie.  And it is other civvies saying pardon him.  But what the hell ever Dadler. What the hell ever

    Looks like Dadler is channeling (none / 0) (#26)
    by oculus on Fri Jan 03, 2014 at 12:06:03 AM EST
    DiFi here.

    Even if the U.S. Government and Mr. Snowden (none / 0) (#25)
    by oculus on Fri Jan 03, 2014 at 12:04:52 AM EST
    enter into a settlement, there's no guarantee Snowden will "End the leaking."

    Who knows what Greenwald and Poitras (5.00 / 1) (#27)
    by Militarytracy on Sat Jan 04, 2014 at 12:21:48 AM EST
    Have from him to still reveal and who knows if everything leaking at this point is all from Snowden?  Others who have had sore consciences may be leaking as well now.

    I suppose Snowden will experience more discomfort before things give, but they crapped on the Constitution huge and continue to do so.  I just don't foresee a world committed to hating the guy and without that...every White House administration will lose attempting to make him pay.

    They only look worse and worse though not pardoning the guy in the longrun and trying to make his life hell.  They are dragging their own selves through mud as more and more is revealed :).


    I have more sympathy (none / 0) (#28)
    by Politalkix on Sat Jan 04, 2014 at 08:13:52 AM EST
    for Manning than Snowden. If the WH decided to pardon anyone among these two at the end, the preference should go to Manning.

    As long as they are (none / 0) (#5)
    by jimakaPPJ on Tue Dec 31, 2013 at 11:15:19 AM EST
    involved only in outside the US activities

    TAO's "work is centered on computer network exploitation in support of foreign intelligence collection."

    I see no problem.

    And I see nothing in the article that says otherwise.

    I guess sometimes we see what we want to see (5.00 / 2) (#8)
    by Peter G on Tue Dec 31, 2013 at 12:25:38 PM EST
    All the vast extent of domestic surveillance activity that has been recently revealed is said to be justified on the basis that it "in support of" foreign intelligence collection. Not that it is actually foreign intelligence collection. But hey, if you collect information about all domestic calls, then somewhere in there you will find Americans using their telephones to talk to people in other countries, and then who knows, some of those might turn out to be of intelligence interest.

    Agreed. It is sort of (5.00 / 1) (#9)
    by KeysDan on Tue Dec 31, 2013 at 12:52:41 PM EST
    the do it because we can and have it just in case mindset. The Constitution must play second fiddle.   Judge William Pauley, in upholding the NSA collection of data, reasoned that the bulk telephone metadata collection might have caught the 9/11 hijackers, speculating that Khalid al-Mihdhar 's whereabouts, in the US or abroad, could have been determined.

    Although, the governmental commission that investigated the attack attributed the failure to locate this hijacker to a lack of communication between the CIA and FBI.  And, of course, any number of illegal methods might be useful in foiling attacks--the legal basis being what should be important to the judge, not what might have or could have worked, if all the stars were aligned.


    IF you are correct (none / 0) (#11)
    by jimakaPPJ on Tue Dec 31, 2013 at 03:17:57 PM EST
    then I would oppose.

    But that is an IF.


    That is precisely the justification (none / 0) (#12)
    by Peter G on Tue Dec 31, 2013 at 04:10:02 PM EST
    that has been offered, as I understand it.

    I still don't (none / 0) (#13)
    by jimakaPPJ on Tue Dec 31, 2013 at 07:36:20 PM EST
    see how you get to it being done on US citizens within the US.

    The DOJ "white paper" explaining (5.00 / 1) (#18)
    by Peter G on Wed Jan 01, 2014 at 02:39:32 PM EST
    its justification is here.  The ACLU's summary, as of mid-July, of what the secret programs are, is here.  The ACLU analysis, as of last June (even before many of the revelations emerged) is here.

    Kind of puts a whole new spin on that (none / 0) (#15)
    by Militarytracy on Wed Jan 01, 2014 at 01:14:41 PM EST
    Snowden dude who fled from Hawaii. Everybody wanted to know how a "systems administrator" made off with the stuff he did?