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
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France
tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
News
people

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Extras
indybest
Sport
Scunthorpe goalkeeper Sam Slocombe (left) is congratulated by winning penalty taker Miguel Llera (right)
football
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
News
i100
Travel
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
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

Ashdown Group: Marketing Services Manager - (communications, testing, DM)

£32000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Services Manage...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Apprenticeships

£10000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an outstanding opportunity for 1...

Ashdown Group: IT Analyst / Helpdesk - 2 Month Contract - £15ph - High Wycombe

£15 per hour: Ashdown Group: IT Analyst / Helpdesk - 2 Month Contract - £15ph ...

Recruitment Genius: Automation Test Analyst

£35000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This group is the world's secon...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum