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Who Are The NSA’s Elite Hackers?

A look into one of the NSA’s best-kept secrets, and one of its most powerful teams.

Last week, a mysterious group calling itself The Shadow Brokers dumped online a series of hacking tools associated with the NSA. The leak provided an unprecedented look into the actual tools that the NSA uses to hack its targets, and in the process, put the spotlight on a little-known team that works inside the spy agency—its elite-hacking unit.

Known as Tailored Access Operations, or TAO, its existence was barely—if at all—discussed in public until 2009, when intelligence historian and author Matthew Aid described it in his book about the history of the NSA as a "super-secret" unit that taps into "thousands of foreign computer systems" and accesses "password-protected hard drives and email accounts of targets around the world."


Since then, we've learned a bit more about the group. In 2013, a leaked catalogue of TAO's hacking tools and implants was published by the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, which detailed for the first time some of the techniques and tools used by TAO and who does use them on. The leaked documents also revealed its motto: "Your data is our data, your equipment is our equipment."

Most of the NSA's programs revealed by Edward Snowden documents, such as the controversial telephone metadata program, which swept up virtually all Americans phone records, were seen as mass surveillance.

What TAO is supposed to do, on the other hand, is targeted surveillance, going in with a digital harpoon rather than a dragnet. But the unit doesn't just hack computers, it also targets some of the internet's infrastructure, gaining access to routers and network switches.

What is TAO? And who do they target? Are they as surgical as their reputation would suggest? As part of VICELAND's CYBERWAR series, VICE Canada reporter Ben Makuch went looking for answers.

You can watch CYBERWAR's episode on the NSA and TAO on VICELAND on Tuesday, at 10:30 PM ET. Meanwhile, read some of Motherboard's best articles about the NSA: