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 monitor 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, painted as an elite team of hackers specializing in stealing data from the toughest of targets.
Citing internal NSA documents, the magazine said 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 tough cases, including computer monitor cables modified to record what is being typed across the screen, USB sticks fitted with radio transmitters to broadcast stolen data over the airwaves, and fake base stations intended to intercept mobile phone signals on the go.
Some of the operations 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 list of vulnerabilities that NSA spies could exploit from companies such as Western Digital Corp. or Dell Inc. The magazine said the list suggested that 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 call on its allies in the FBI and the CIA, intercept the hardware in transit, and take it to a secret workshop where it could be fitted with espionage software before being sent on its way.
One of the most striking reported revelations was the NSA's ability to spy on Microsoft Corp.'s crash reports, familiar to users of the Windows operating system as the dialog box that pops up when a game freezes or a Word document dies. The system is intended to help Microsoft engineers improve their products and fix bugs, but Der Spiegel said the NSA was sifting through the reports to help spies break into machines running Windows.
"We would have significant concerns if the allegations about government actions are true," a Microsoft representative said in an e-mail Sunday.