Inside the NSA’s Ultra-Secret China Hacking Group

Among the series of stories published in The Guardian last week based on files leaked by former CIA and NSA contractor Edward Snowden, one report highlighted a secret directive to identify potential foreign targets for U.S. cyberattacks. In it, authors Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill quoted Snowden:

An intelligence source with extensive knowledge of the National Security Agency’s systems told the Guardian the US complaints again China were hypocritical, because America had participated in offensive cyber operations and widespread – breaking into foreign computer systems to mine information.

Provided anonymity to speak critically about classified practices, the source said: “We hack everyone everywhere. We like to make a distinction between us and the others. But we are in almost every country in the world.”

The US likes to haul China before the international court of public opinion for “doing what we do every day”, the source added. [Source]

(Though Snowden was not named in the original article, an identical quote appears in an interview with him published after his identity was revealed on Sunday.)

At Foreign Policy, intelligence historian Matthew M. Aid describes the group within the NSA responsible for much of this intrusion, following one official’s claim last week that China has gathered “mountains of data” on U.S. attacks:

It turns out that the Chinese government’s allegations are essentially correct. According to a number of confidential sources, a highly secretive unit of the National Security Agency (NSA), the U.S. government’s huge electronic eavesdropping organization, called the Office of Tailored Access Operations, or TAO, has successfully penetrated Chinese computer and telecommunications systems for almost 15 years, generating some of the best and most reliable intelligence information about what is going on inside the People’s Republic of China.

[…] The problem is that TAO has become so large and produces so much valuable intelligence information that it has become virtually impossible to hide it anymore. The Chinese government is certainly aware of TAO’s activities. The “mountains of data” statement by China’s top Internet official, Huang Chengqing, is clearly an implied threat by Beijing to release this data. Thus it is unlikely that President Obama pressed President Xi too hard at the Sunnydale summit on the question of China’s cyber-espionage activities. As any high-stakes poker player knows, you can only press your luck so far when the guy on the other side of the table knows what cards you have in your hand. [Source]

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