The National Security Agency maintains an elite hacker unit whose operational mandate includes penetrating the cybersecurity of foreign governments and planting spyware in consumer tech products, according to a report by German magazine Der Spiegel.
Hardware and software products by Microsoft, Huawei, Cisco and other leading tech firms are among those reportedly compromised by the NSA's Office of Tailored Access Operations, or TAO.
Citing internal NSA documents, Der Spiegel identifies TAO as a unit "born of the Internet," founded in 1997 and growing quickly in the years since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In 2010, according to the report, TAO conducted 279 operations around the world.
Officials at the NSA refused to discuss details of TAO's operations with Der Spiegel, but said its "work is centered on computer network exploitation in support of foreign intelligence collection."
The average person may not find much cause for concern in revelations that TAO has gained access to undersea fiber-optic cables and spied on the leaders of foreign countries. But the NSA's special unit has also seen fit to target users of Facebook, Yahoo and other internet services for exploitation.
While any one person is unlikely to be the target of an NSA mission, the agency certainly has the desire and ability to spy on people around the world. According to a classified budget document, the NSA expects to have backdoor access to 85,000 computers around the world by the end of 2013, up from 21,252 in 2008.
At least one tech giant is taking action. Cisco has launched an investigation based on Der Spiegel's report. "At this time, we do not know of any new product vulnerabilities, and will continue to pursue all avenues to determine if we need to address any new issues," John Stewart, Cisco's chief security officer, said in a company blog post. "We do not work with any government to weaken our products for exploitation, nor to implement any so-called security 'back doors' in our products."