NSA’s top-secret cyber squad: The hackers at the Office of Tailored Operations are one of the strongest weapons in America's formidable arsenal

TAO was established in 1997 to hack into global communications systems at a time when fewer than 2 per cent of the world’s population had access to the internet

Los Angeles

They are mostly young, casually dressed and fearsomely computer literate – and, if they sound just like typical Silicon Valley start-up geeks, they are. But the employees of the NSA’s Office of Tailored Operations, or TAO, are also among the most powerful weapons in the formidable US cyber-arsenal.

The top-secret unit, whose existence is rarely acknowledged by the NSA, hacks computers around the world – harvesting data, monitoring communications and even mounting its own cyber-attacks. In a new report based on internal NSA documents, Der Spiegel describes TAO as “something like a squad of plumbers that can be called in when normal access to a target is blocked”.

TAO workers are said to be “considerably younger” than most of their fellow NSA employees and many have been recruited at hacker conferences, where the NSA director Keith Alexander – a four-star general – has been known to appear dressed down in jeans and a T-shirt in order to attract prospective candidates.

TAO was established in 1997 to hack into global communications systems at a time when fewer than 2 per cent of the world’s population had access to the internet. Today, the unit has offices in Hawaii, Georgia, Texas, Colorado and at NSA headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland, where there are an estimated 600 TAO operatives. The documents obtained by Der Spiegel suggest that, during the mid-2000s, TAO accessed 258 targets in 89 countries. By 2010, it conducted 279 operations per year worldwide. These included hacking the private, protected networks of world leaders, including both rivals and allies of the US. Among their targets was Mexico’s Secretariat of Public Security, described in the documents as a “gold mine” of information regarding shared US-Mexican concerns such as the drugs trade and human trafficking.

In 2005, TAO is thought to have gained access to a vast trove of information about China’s cyber-intelligence activities. According to a recent report by The Washington Post, the unit was also instrumental in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, gathering intelligence from mobile phones used by Bin Laden’s al-Qa’ida colleagues.

Much of TAO’s work is focused on mass telecommunications and the unit relies on the secret co-operation of the three largest US telecoms companies – AT&T, Verizon and Sprint – as well as major US internet service providers. They have also hacked European networks and, after one “sustained TAO operation”, managed to access BlackBerry’s famously secure BES email servers. Another top-secret document outlines the agency’s infiltration of “SEA-ME-WE-4”, a vast underwater cable telecoms network that links Europe to the Gulf states, Pakistan, India and the Far East.

The unit has even been known to organise the interception of shipping deliveries to its intelligence targets, installing its own “back doors” in hardware manufactured by Microsoft, Huawei and others, providing covert, remote access to the devices once they are in use.

The current budget plan for US intelligence estimates that by the end of 2013, some 85,000 computers worldwide will have been infiltrated by the NSA. This year a former agency official told Bloomberg Businessweek that TAO now gathers two petabytes, or two million gigabytes, per hour of data from overseas computer networks.

And yet, the former head of TAO claimed in one document that, “it is not about the quantity produced but the quality of intelligence that is important”. The unit has produced “some of the most significant intelligence our country has ever seen”.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own