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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 hijack Microsoft’s internal reporting system to spy on their targets.
- Watch NSA leaker Edward Snowden’s surveillance warning
- Snowden document shows Canada set up spy posts for NSA
Der Spiegel’s revelations relate to a division of the NSA known as Tailored Access Operations, or TAO, which is painted as an elite team of hackers specializing in stealing data from the toughest of targets.
Citing internal NSA documents, the magazine said Sunday that 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 catalogue of high-tech gadgets for particularly hard-to-crack cases, including computer monitor cables specially modified to record what is being typed across the screen, USB sticks secretly fitted with radio transmitters to broadcast stolen data over the airwaves, and fake base stations intended to intercept mobile phone signals on the go.
The NSA doesn’t just rely on James Bond-style spy gear, the magazine said. Some of the attacks 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 mail order catalogue-style list of vulnerabilities that NSA spies could exploit from companies such as Irvine, California-based Western Digital Corp. or Round Rock, Texas-based Dell Inc. The magazine said that suggested 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 tap its allies in the FBI and the CIA, intercept the hardware in transit, and take it to a secret workshop where it could be discretely fitted with espionage software before being sent on its way.
Intercepting computer equipment in such a way is among the NSA’s “most productive operations,” and has helped harvest intelligence from around the world, one document cited by Der Spiegel stated.
Allegations taken seriously
One of the most striking reported revelations concerned the NSA’s alleged ability to spy on Microsoft Corp.’s crash reports, familiar to many users of the Windows operating system as the dialogue box which pops up when a game freezes or a Word document dies.
The reporting system is intended to help Microsoft engineers improve their products and fix bugs, but Der Spiegel said the NSA was also sifting through the reports to help spies break into machines running Windows.
One NSA document cited by the magazine appeared to poke fun at Microsoft’s expense, replacing the software giant’s standard error report message with the words: “This information may be intercepted by a foreign sigint [signals intelligence] system to gather detailed information and better exploit your machine.”
Microsoft said that information sent by customers about technical issues in such a manner is limited.
“Microsoft does not provide any government with direct or unfettered access to our customer’s data,” a company representative said in an email Sunday. “We would have significant concerns if the allegations about government actions are true.”
Microsoft is one of several U.S. firms that have demanded more transparency from the NSA — and worked to bolster their security — in the wake of the revelations of former intelligence worker Edward Snowden, whose disclosures have ignited an international debate over privacy and surveillance.
Der Spiegel did not explicitly say where its cache NSA documents had come from, although the magazine has previously published a series of stories based on documents leaked by Snowden, and one of Snowden’s key contacts — American documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras — was listed among the article’s six authors.
No one was immediately available at Der Spiegel to clarify whether Snowden was the source for the latest story.
Another company mentioned by Der Spiegel, though not directly linked with any NSA activity, was Juniper Networks Inc., a computer network equipment maker in Sunnyvale, Calif.
“Juniper Networks recently became aware of, and is currently investigating, alleged security compromises of technology products made by a number of companies, including Juniper,” the company said in an email. “We take allegations of this nature very seriously and are working actively to address any possible exploit paths.”
If necessary, Juniper said, it would, “work closely with customers to ensure they take any mitigation steps.”
“The Fed will never end QE for good…” blasts Marc Faber, “they may do some cosmetic adjustments, but within a few years, [Fed] asset purchases will be substantially higher than they are today.” There will be another weakening in the US economy, Faber warns, and “the Fed will argue it hasn’t done enough and will do more… they have been irresponsible for 20 years.”
Noting that investors should “not buy stocks but be in cash”, the stunned CNBC anchor exclaims “How could you sit in cash when th emarket is on fire and interest rates are so low?” to which Faber blasts, “The market is not on fire, look at IBM, Cisco, and Intel – all lower than 2011; it’s on fire if you are in Facebook or Twitter and not everyone owns them.”
Use rallies to reduce exposure, he warns, “we will go up until it is over; and when it is over the drop will be larger than 20%”
NSA Fallout Spreads: Qualcomm Probed By Chinese Regulator In “Confidential” Investigation | Zero Hedge
The recent collapse in the forward guidance from Cisco and various other tech and telecom companies has been widely attributed to the world’s – and mostly China’s – anger at the NSA in the aftermath of the Snowden revelations, resulting in a dramatic collapse in both future visibility and orderbooks. This was admitted in a recent WSJ interview with the CEO of Qualcomm, Paul Jacobs, acknowledged U.S. restrictions on Chinese companies and revelations about surveillance by the National Security Agency are impacting its business in the fast-growing country.
“We are definitely seeing increased pressure,” said Mr. Jacobs in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. “All U.S. tech companies are seeing pressure.”
Mr. Jacobs stopped short of saying the pressure hurt its sales, but he did say it affected the way the company operated in China.
“[You] have to be very cautious,” he said. “We are always very careful with whatever steps we take. How we sell. How we interact.”
Qualcomm tries to be a good partner with some local Chinese manufacturers and build some of its computer chipsets in mainland China, he said. The company doesn’t build cutting edge technology there, but it does build some older trailing technologies in China.
Mr. Jacobs said it is “very delicate balancing act that goes on. There’s no question there is an impact.” In the fiscal year ended Sept. 29, Qualcomm generated $1 billion in revenue from China.
Mr. Jacobs’ remarks come as some big U.S. computer and software companies are reporting a sudden chill in China sales. On Nov. 14, Cisco Systems Inc. reported orders from China fell 18% and said its world-wide revenue would decline 8% to 10% in the current quarter, in part because of continued weakness in China.
Cisco executives were the most explicit so far in suggesting that Chinese customers, particularly those with government ties, may be cutting purchases of U.S. tech gear in response to fallout from the NSA revelations and the U.S. government’s de facto ban on telecom gear from China’s Huawei Technologies Co.
Blockback against US companies took a turn for the worse moments ago, when Qualcomm said China’s price regulator, National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), has started an investigation of the mobile chipmaker under the Chinese Anti-Monopoly Law. According to Reuters, NDRC has advised that the substance of the investigation was confidential, the company said in a statement.
Qualcomm said it was not aware of any violation. Well, maybe not any violation of its own, but it certainly is aware of the NSA exposed violations, which are now impacting US corporations across the globe.
The NDRC is China’s top economic planning body and regulates prices. It has launched nearly 20 pricing-related probes into domestic and foreign firms in the last three years, according to official media reports and research published by law firms.
Qualcomm said it was not aware of any violation. Well, maybe not any violation of its own, but it certainly is aware of the NSA exposed violations, which are now impacting US corporations across the globe. For now, at least, the response has focused on telecom and internet companies, although should domestic pressure increase to punish more US corporations, it is likely that any company doing business in China (coughbloombergcough) will see increasingly more difficulty with staying in compliance, and in generating the kinds of sales and profits they have been used to. Hardly the thing America’s revenue-constrained companies need at this moment, especially with consensus expecting an unprecedented surge in profitability over the next two years to offset the collapse in actual top-line growth.