The National Security Agency’s sophisticated hacking operations go way beyond using software vulnerabilities to gain access to targeted systems. The agency has a catalog of tools available that would make James Bond’s Q jealous, providing NSA analysts access to just about every potential source of data about a target.
In some cases, the NSA has modified the firmware of computers and network hardware—including systems shipped by Cisco, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Huawei, and Juniper Networks—to give its operators both eyes and ears inside the offices the agency has targeted. In others, the NSA has crafted custom BIOS exploits that can survive even the reinstallation of operating systems. And in still others, the NSA has built and deployed its own USB cables at target locations—complete with spy hardware and radio transceiver packed inside.
The whole catalog is amazing, especially if you have a basic handle on embedded systems. This stuff is pretty impressive for 2008, a time before we all pocket computers always connected to the internet. I found the GSM and firmware exploits to be not very surprising. The VGA cable which taps the red signal line and transmits it over wireless was neat. Also, the code names are kind of bizarre.
I will have to say I did like it a bit better when all of this was the stuff of fiction, and not was apparently just what’s happening on a Tuesday.