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Report: NSA intercepts computer deliveries

Dec. 29, 2013 - 02:09PM   |  
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Lawmakers dispute Snowden’s declaration of victory

WASHINGTON — Members of Congress said Sunday they weren’t impressed with Edward Snowden’s recent publicity blitz calling for an end to mass surveillance and declaring that he’s already accomplished his mission.
Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California acknowledged that Snowden has kindled an important public debate, but he said the former National Security Agency leaker should have stayed in the United States to demonstrate the courage of his convictions.
Republican Rep. Mike Rogers of Michigan, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said Snowden’s release of classified documents jeopardized the safety of troops in Afghanistan and gave nations such as China and Russia valuable insight into how America’s intelligence services operate. “That’s who the messenger is,” Rogers said.
The two, speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” were responding to Snowden’s recent comments from Russia in a 14-hour interview with The Washington Post that he was working to make the NSA better, not tear it down. Snowden also made remarks in a video he released online.
Schiff said it struck him that Snowden spoke from “one of the foremost big brother states in the world, where he is living without any privacy, because there’s no right or expectation of privacy in Russia whatsoever. So I don’t find his message particularly moving or appealing.”
Ben Wizner of the ACLU, who said he speaks regularly with Snowden over encrypted channels, said Snowden hopes to one day return to the United States. He said the charges brought against Snowden for espionage don’t distinguish between leaks to the press and the selling of state secrets to a foreign enemy. If the law allowed him to make a defense that he acted in the public’s interest, “he would face trial in that kind of system,” Wizner said.
“For now, he doesn’t believe and I don’t believe that the cost of his act of conscience should be a life behind bars,” said Wizner, who appeared Sunday on “Meet the Press.”
Snowden declared in the newspaper interview he’d “already won” and achieved what he set out to do. Wizner said Snowden’s mission was to bring the public, the courts and lawmakers into a conversation about the NSA’s work.
“He did his part,” Wizner said. “It’s now up to the public and our institutional oversight to decide how to respond.” — AP

LONDON — A German magazine lifted the lid on the operations of the National Security Agency’s hacking unit Sunday, reporting that American spies intercept computer deliveries, exploit hardware vulnerabilities, and even hijack Microsoft’s internal reporting system to spy on their targets.

Der Spiegel’s revelations relate to a division of the NSA known as Tailored Access Operations, or TAO, which is painted as an elite team of hackers specializing in stealing data from the toughest of targets.

Citing internal NSA documents, the magazine said Sunday that TAO’s mission was “Getting the ungettable,” and quoted an unnamed intelligence official as saying that TAO had gathered “some of the most significant intelligence our country has ever seen.”

Der Spiegel said TAO had a catalog of high-tech gadgets for particularly hard-to-crack cases, including computer monitor cables specially modified to record what is being typed across the screen, USB sticks secretly fitted with radio transmitters to broadcast stolen data over the airwaves, and fake base stations intended to intercept mobile phone signals on the go.

The NSA doesn’t just rely on James Bond-style spy gear, the magazine said. Some of the attacks described by Der Spiegel exploit weaknesses in the architecture of the Internet to deliver malicious software to specific computers. Others take advantage of weaknesses in hardware or software distributed by some of the world’s leading information technology companies, including Cisco Systems, Inc. and China’s Huawei Technologies Ltd., the magazine reported.

Der Spiegel cited a 2008 mail order catalog-style list of vulnerabilities that NSA spies could exploit from companies such as Irvine, California-based Western Digital Corp. or Round Rock, Texas-based Dell Inc. The magazine said that suggested the agency was “compromising the technology and products of American companies.”

Old-fashioned methods get a mention too. Der Spiegel said that if the NSA tracked a target ordering a new computer or other electronic accessories, TAO could tap its allies in the FBI and the CIA, intercept the hardware in transit, and take it to a secret workshop where it could be discretely fitted with espionage software before being sent on its way.

Intercepting computer equipment in such a way is among the NSA’s “most productive operations,” and has helped harvest intelligence from around the world, one document cited by Der Spiegel stated.

One of the most striking reported revelations concerned the NSA’s alleged ability to spy on Microsoft Corp.’s crash reports, familiar to many users of the Windows operating system as the dialogue box which pops up when a game freezes or a Word document dies. The reporting system is intended to help Microsoft engineers improve their products and fix bugs, but Der Spiegel said the NSA was also sifting through the reports to help spies break into machines running Windows. One NSA document cited by the magazine appeared to poke fun at Microsoft’s expense, replacing the software giant’s standard error report message with the words: “This information may be intercepted by a foreign sigint (signals intelligence) system to gather detailed information and better exploit your machine.”

Microsoft did not immediately return a call seeking comment, but the company is one of several U.S. firms that have demanded more transparency from the NSA — and worked to bolster their security — in the wake of the revelations of former intelligence worker Edward Snowden, whose disclosures have ignited an international debate over privacy and surveillance.

Der Spiegel did not explicitly say where its cache NSA documents had come from, although the magazine has previously published a series of stories based on documents leaked by Snowden, and one of Snowden’s key contacts — American documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras — was listed among the article’s six authors.

No one was immediately available at Der Spiegel to clarify whether Snowden was the source for the latest story.

Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.

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