The National Security Agency, a name familiar to both computer professionals and Hollywood spy/Sci-Fi movie lovers alike, follows its official motto,
Collect (including through clandestine means), process, analyze, produce, and disseminate signals intelligence information and data for foreign intelligence and counterintelligence purposes to support national and departmental missions
to its core and beyond. It is the biggest intelligence agency in the United States to enjoy an Executive Order by the President, allowing the NSA to use clandestine approaches to serve its purpose. With so much legal precedence, manpower of 30,000 – 40,000 highly skilled computer architects, mathematicians, and cryptologists, and a whooping budget of over $10 billion, the NSA is capable of pulling off surveillance projects of global implications. Some of the famous ones include, PRISM – NSA’s direct access to Facebook, Google, and Apple user data; backdoor into TOR; and the most recent one: a top-secret, extremely talented hacking unit to perform operations that cannot be performed using usual hacking means.
According to a report by a German Publication, citing internal NSA documents, NSA now has a hacking unit called Office of Tailored Access Operations responsible for performing operations ranging from counter terrorism to cyber attacks to traditional espionage. In order to achieve what it was conceived for, TAO needs,
pervasive, persistent access to the global network
according to its ex-chief.
NSA Headquarters in Ford Meade; home to 40,000 highly exceptional mathematicians, cryptologists, and hackers. Picture courtesy of Wikipedia.
Internal documents released by an ex-NSA contractor, Edward Snowden, denote to many sophisticated tools, techniques, and sub-units that are being used in TAO. Let’s look at some of them
- QUANTUMTHEORY, a sophisticated tool developed and used by TAO that gives NSA the ability to access user data from Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Twitter, and YouTube.
- Stuxnet, a computer worm that targets industrial systems and has the ability to render critical infrastructure components, like defense or telecommunication, useless. Developed jointly with Israel, Stuxnet was responsible for destroying Iran’s nuclear program and setting it a decade back.
- Hacking into SE-ME-WE-4, an underwater fiber-optic cable system responsible for telecommunications between Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Egypt, Italy, Tunisia, Algeria and France. According to the secret document, TAO, “successfully collected network management information for the Se-Me-We Undersea Cable Systems (SMW-4).” The report further added that TAO was able to “gain access to the consortium’s management website and collected Layer 2 network information that shows the circuit mapping for significant portions of the network.”
- Hacking into Mexico’s security agency responsible for overseeing the country’s police, prison system, counterterrorism operations, and border officers.
Such attempts clearly indicate that NSA rigorously use illegal means to gather data on internet users, corporations, and even their own citizens to protect national security. This blanket surveillance and exploitation by the NSA is most definitely against civil liberty and an individual’s right to privacy.
What do you think about using surveillance to prevent terrorism? To what extent intelligence agencies should allow surveillance to catch the bad guys or stop something bad from happening? And what safeguards should be there to ensure that such exploitation of privacy is not being done to get the upper hand for sociopolitical or strategic reasons. Like Juvenal put it,
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?