Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for December 29th, 2013

NSA installs malware on computers purchased on-line

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Wow. Connor Simpson writes at The Wire:

According to a new report from Der Spiegel on the National Security Agency’s top team of hackers, the agency intercept electronics purchased online before delivery to install malware and other spying tools.

The NSA’s Tailored Access Operations (TAO) division is responsible for the biggest hacks we’ve learned about in the last year, so Der Spiegel‘s report is a special look at the methods and madness behind the NSA’s all-star team. When a world leader’s cell phone is hacked by the NSA, the TAO team is responsible. They’re the hackers who can access anyone, anywhere, under any condition.

TAO hackers can track your digital movements remotely by exploiting security flaws in an operating system, like Windows, for example. (It’s a TAO favorite.) But when new-fangled remote access hacking strategies don’t work, though, the NSA goes old school. The agency’s most-skilled team of hackers does not always work from behind a computer screen. Occasionally a target must be physically intercepted before the NSA can access their information. In these instances, TAO waits for the target to order new electronics. When their surveillance system alerts that Target X just bought a new laptop, the TAO intercepts the mail order, and has the computer delivered to an NSA facility. They then open the package, and install their malware technology onto the target’s new computer. The product is then repackaged and sent along its merry way:

If a target person, agency or company orders a new computer or related accessories, for example, TAO can divert the shipping delivery to its own secret workshops. The NSA calls this method interdiction. At these so-called “load stations,” agents carefully open the package in order to load malware onto the electronics, or even install hardware components that can provide backdoor access for the intelligence agencies. All subsequent steps can then be conducted from the comfort of a remote computer.

These minor disruptions in the parcel shipping business rank among the “most productive operations” conducted by the NSA hackers, one top secret document relates in enthusiastic terms. This method, the presentation continues, allows TAO to obtain access to networks “around the world.”

And you wondered why your Amazon order took so long.

But usually the team sticks to new school hacking methods, like using a complicated system of tools called QUANTUM, focusing on social networks a target visits frequently, like Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter and YouTube, to remotely gain access to a their computer. Once the team has done enough surveillance and is ready to strike, . . .

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Note especially the focus on LinkedIn. The Der Spiegel article begins:

The NSA’s TAO hacking unit is considered to be the intelligence agency’s top secret weapon. It maintains its own covert network, infiltrates computers around the world and even intercepts shipping deliveries to plant back doors in electronics ordered by those it is targeting.

In January 2010, numerous homeowners in San Antonio, Texas, stood baffled in front of their closed garage doors. They wanted to drive to work or head off to do their grocery shopping, but their garage door openers had gone dead, leaving them stranded. No matter how many times they pressed the buttons, the doors didn’t budge. The problem primarily affected residents in the western part of the city, around Military Drive and the interstate highway known as Loop 410.

In the United States, a country of cars and commuters, the mysterious garage door problem quickly became an issue for local politicians. Ultimately, the municipal government solved the riddle. Fault for the error lay with the United States’ foreign intelligence service, the National Security Agency, which has offices in San Antonio. Officials at the agency were forced to admit that one of the NSA’s radio antennas was broadcasting at the same frequency as the garage door openers. Embarrassed officials at the intelligence agency promised to resolve the issue as quickly as possible, and soon the doors began opening again.It was thanks to the garage door opener episode that Texans learned just how far the NSA’s work had encroached upon their daily lives. For quite some time now, the intelligence agency has maintained a branch with around 2,000 employees at Lackland Air Force Base, also in San Antonio. In 2005, the agency took over a former Sony computer chip plant in the western part of the city. A brisk pace of construction commenced inside this enormous compound. The acquisition of the former chip factory at Sony Place was part of a massive expansion the agency began after the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

On-Call Digital Plumbers

One of the two main buildings at the former plant has since housed a sophisticated NSA unit, one that has benefited the most from this expansion and has grown the fastest in recent years — the Office of Tailored Access Operations, or TAO. This is the NSA’s top operative unit — something like a squad of plumbers that can be called in when normal access to a target is blocked.

According to internal NSA documents viewed by SPIEGEL, these on-call digital plumbers are involved in many sensitive operations conducted by American intelligence agencies. TAO’s area of operations ranges from counterterrorism to cyber attacks to traditional espionage. The documents reveal just how diversified the tools at TAO’s disposal have become — and also how it exploits the technical weaknesses of the IT industry, from Microsoft to Cisco and Huawei, to carry out its discreet and efficient attacks.

The unit is “akin to the wunderkind of the US intelligence community,” says Matthew Aid, a historian who specializes in the history of the NSA. “Getting the ungettable” is the NSA’s own description of its duties. “It is not about the quantity produced but the quality of intelligence that is important,” one former TAO chief wrote, describing her work in a document. The paper seen by SPIEGEL quotes the former unit head stating that TAO has contributed “some of the most significant intelligence our country has ever seen.” The unit, it goes on, has “access to our very hardest targets.” . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

29 December 2013 at 1:08 pm

Benghazi revisited—literally

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David Kirkpatrick visited Benghazi and interviewed many residents there, including participants in the attack, to determine what was behind the attack, what drove it, and how the Libyans view it. His account is one of the NY Times magazine-style feature articles with animated graphics and the like, and it is absorbing and informative. Highly recommended.

And read Juan Cole’s piece, also lengthy. It begins:

David D. Kirkpatrick at the New York Times has settled the controversy over events in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, by actually going to Benghazi and digging into the story. Admittedly, it was a somewhat dangerous assignment, but Kirkpatrick risked it.

The take-away of this careful investigation, depending on a range of interviews with Libyans who had been at the scene of the attack on the US consulate in the Libyan port city, is that al-Qaeda had nothing to do with it.

The chief suspect is an eccentric local militia leader, Ahmad Abu Khattala and his Obeida Ibn Al Jarra Brigade, which fought against Muammar Gaddafi in the 2011 revolution. Abu Khattala had no gratitude to the Americans who helped his people against the dictator, and is viewed as one bulb short of a chandelier by many of his acquaintances. He, like many Benghazi fundamentalists, had spent years incarcerated by the Gaddafi government in the notorious Abu Salim prison, where in the 1990s Gaddafi dealt with a prison revolt by just having hundreds of inmates mowed down.

Another fundamentalist organization in the city, Ansar al-Sharia, was also involved, though it continues to deny involvement in the consulate attack.

The ginned up Islamophobic attack “film” on the Prophet Muhammad probably produced secretly by the Islamophobic network in the US in hopes of causing trouble abroad for President Obama in an election year did provoke demonstrations at the US consulate, which morphed into the attack on it. In fact, in my darker moments I suspect that some US GOP officials knew about the “film” and the likelihood it would get the Muslims’ goat, and had a narrative ready to go that Barack Obama on the Middle East was another helpless Jimmy Carter. Whatever the origin of their narrative, they clearly weren’t willing to let go of it simply because it flew in the face of the facts as known.

US officials in Benghazi knew that there were dangerous fundamentalist militias in the city. But they had dozens of CIA operatives at a nearby safe house, who they were sure could protect them. And they had allied with the fundamentalists against Gaddafi and so expected if not gratitude at least tolerance for their presence.

The Republican attack propaganda on President Obama and his team maintained that the consulate attack was the work of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s al-Qaeda, that it was preplanned, and that the “Silence of the Muslims” film had nothing to do with it. Sen. Lindsey Graham alleged that “everyone knew” that Benghazi was controlled by al-Qaeda in summer of 2012. Rep. Mike Rogers, who is more of a prevaricator even than most politicians, asserted the same thing.

I was in Benghazi in late May of 2012 for a few days and gave a talk at a community center there. The city most certainly was not in the control of “al-Qaeda.” There were a few fundamentalist militias, but they were not representative of the city, which had municipal elections in late spring.

On the occasion of the appearance of Kirkpatrick’s important reportage, I’ll leave you with my own deconstruction of the false GOP narrative, from last year. I think it is largely vindicated by what Kirkpatrick was able to find out on the ground.

“Top Ten Republican Myths on Benghazi:

1. Republican senators keep saying that it should have been “easy” to find out what happened on September 11, 2012, by simply debriefing US personnel who had been there. John McCain, Ron Johnson and the others who make this charge are the most cynical and manipulative people in the world. The Benghazi US mission was very clearly an operation of the Central Intelligence Agency, and that is the reason that the Obama administration officials have never been able to speak frankly and publicly about it. McCain and the others know this very well, and they know that their public carping cannot be “simply” answered because the answers would endanger sources and methods. The consulate was amazingly well-guarded by some 40 CIA operatives, many of them ex-special forces, in a nearby safe house. These were viewed by consular officials as “the cavalry.” It is still not clear what Ambassador Chris Stevens and the CIA were doing in Benghazi, and unless we know that we can’t know why they were attacked. (They were not overseeing the shipping of weapons to Syria; the Syrian revolutionaries complain bitterly that the US *prevents* them from getting medium and heavy weapons).

2. . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

29 December 2013 at 8:51 am

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