LONDON — 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.
Der Spiegel's revelations on Sunday 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, Der Spiegel said TAO had a catalog 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.
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, it said.
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.
Microsoft said 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.
Der Spiegel did not explicitly say where its cache of NSA documents had come from, although the magazine has previously published a series of stories based on documents leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.