The NSA has its own team of elite hackers

August 29, 2013

NSA headquarters at Fort Meade, MD where TAO's main team reportedly works (Wikipedia)

Our Post colleagues have had a busy day. First, they released documents revealing the U.S. intelligence budget from National Security Agency (NSA) leaker Edward Snowden. Then they recounted exactly how the hunt for Osama bin Laden went down.

In that second report, Craig Whitlock and Barton Gellman shared a few tidbits about the role of the government's hacking unit, Tailored Access Operations (TAO) in the hunt, writing that TAO "enabled the NSA to collect intelligence from mobile phones that were used by al-Qaeda operatives and other 'persons of interest' in the bin Laden hunt."

So just what is Tailored Access Operations? According to a profile by Matthew M. Aid for Foreign Policy, it's a highly secret but incredibly important NSA program that collects intelligence about foreign targets by hacking into their computers, stealing data, and monitoring communications. Aid claims TAO is also responsible for developing programs that could destroy or damage foreign computers and networks via cyberattacks if commanded to do so by the president.

So, TAO might have had something to do with the development of Stuxnet and Flame, malware programs thought to have been jointly developed by the U.S. and Israel. The malware initially targeted the Iranian nuclear program, but quickly made its way into the digital wild.

According to Aid, TAO's primary base is in the NSA headquarters in Fort Meade. There, he says, some 600 members of the unit work rotating shifts 24-7 in an "ultramodern" space at the center of the base called the Remote Operations Center (ROC).

The unit bears a striking resemblance to a Chinese hacking group described in a report released by cybesecurity company Mandiant earlier this year. The report indicated that that group, APT1, was likely organized by the Chinese military. Perhaps not so coincidentally, Aid says multiple confidential sources have told him that TAO has "successfully penetrated Chinese computer and telecommunications systems for almost 15 years," in the process, "generating some of the best and most reliable intelligence information about what is going on inside the People's Republic of China."

But for all the reported secrecy surrounding TAO's activities, a quick search of networking site LinkedIn shows a number of current and former intelligence community employees talking pretty openly about the exploits.

For instance, Brendan Conlon, whose page lists him as a former Deputy Chief of Integrated Cyber Operations for the NSA and former Chief of TAO in Hawaii, says that he led "a large group of joint service NSA civilians and contractors in executing Computer Network Exploitation (CNE) operations against target networks." Barbara Hunt, who is listed as a former Director of Capabilities at TAO in Fort Meade, similarly claims she was "responsible for end-to-end development and capability delivery to build a versatile computer network exploitation effort."

Dean Schyvincht, who claims to currently be a TAO Senior Computer Network Operator in Texas, might reveal the most about the scope of TAO activities. He says the 14 personnel under his management have completed "over 54,000 Global Network Exploitation (GNE) operations in support of national intelligence agency requirements." Just imagine how productive the team in Fort Meade, rumored to have about 600 people, must be.

More on this story:

Interactive: Explore the Black Budget

Secret budget details U.S. spy network’s successes, failures

NSA pays U.S. firms millions for communications network access

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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