Mathis Lohaus

“Tailored Access Operations” are exactly what I want the NSA to do

Happy New Year everyone! We’re back from our winter break. (Actually, some members of the IR Blog editorial board are still enjoying their time off, but I guess they will return to their desks eventually.)

At the 2013 Chaos Communication Congress in Hamburg, Jacob Applebaum gave a talk that summarized what is known about the NSA’s “Tailored Access Operations” unit. You can watch the video above. Basically, “tailored access” means that these are high-tech “hackers” that acquire intelligence on high-profile targets. Their arsenal includes tiny wireless chips inserted into hardware that is intercepted on the way to customers (!) as well as a special kind of bug that can be accessed by radar waves. Given that the information is from 2009, they probably have even more sophisticated tools now.

The related SPIEGEL story is here (in English). Bruce Schneier has collected a couple of links on the topic, and currently presents one of the exploits every day.

In the Guardian, Matt Blaze makes a very important point: “The NSA’s Tailored Access Operations show there’s a way to be safe and get good intelligence without mass surveillance”. The crucial difference is that between (A) civil-rights-abusing mass surveillance (as currently discussed, again, in the German cabinet) and (B) targeted surveillance of people that were chosen based on meaningful criteria. As Blaze puts it:

TAO is retail rather than wholesale.

That is, as well as TAO works (and it appears to work quite well indeed), they can’t deploy it against all of us – or even most of us. They must be installed on each individual target’s own equipment, sometimes remotely but sometimes through “supply chain interdiction” or “black bag jobs”. By their nature, targeted exploits must be used selectively. Of course, “selectively” at the scale of NSA might still be quite large, but it is still a tiny fraction of what they collect through mass collection.

For over a decade now, the NSA has been drowning in a sea of irrelevant data collected almost entirely about innocent people who would never be selected as targets or comprise part of any useful analysis. The implicit assumption has been that spying on everyone is the price we pay to be able to spy on the real bad guys. But the success of TAO demonstrates a viable alternative. And if the NSA has any legitimate role in intelligence gathering, targeted operations like TAO have the significant advantage that they leave the rest of us – and the systems we rely on – alone.

When I wrote earlier that “we are genuinely shocked by the extent to which our friends feel the need to spy on us and don’t think twice about it”, I was mainly referring to mass surveillance. Wiretapping chancellor Merkel is disrespectful, but I expect her to expect this kind of thing as an occupational hazard. What I find unacceptable, on the other hand, is that systematically eroding the integrity of communications networks and the meaning of “privacy” should be the new normal.

In other words: I’m far more comfortable with the idea that U.S. operatives secretly plant a bug in some suspected terrorist’s computer in Berlin than with the fact that all kinds of “metadata” on German (and other) citizens are being collected non-stop.

Putting a stop to individual-level surveillance seems implausible to me, and also impossible seeing that U.S. legislators would have to decide to shut down pretty much all of what intellifence agencies are about. But is it really that far-fetched (or naive) to hope for some consensus in favor of civil rights? Even if you don’t care about somewhat lofty and abstract pro-privacy arguments, U.S. and European business is being hurt by the NSA’s horrible reputation, and then there’s always the risk that backdoors may be used by more than one party…

“Tailored access” is exactly what I want the NSA to do. But please leave my telecoms provider alone and stop tracking my mobile phone “just in case”.

One comment

  1. Doug Williams

    Is “US and European business (really) being hurt by the NSA’s horrible reputation”? Or is that idea used to distance corporate power from perceived culpability in this whole mess? The NSA (founded in 1951) charter has never been made public and has jokingly been referred to as “No Such Agency” by people who know about such things. But the primary purpose of any such state organization is not the thwarting of foreign and terrorist threats, but the surveillance of its own citizens. To hope that such an agency will “leave my telecoms provider alone and stop tracking my mobile phone” is naive. That’s precisely what the NSA is there to do. And they want us to know about it.

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