What does a National Security Agency (NSA) spy ring look like?  There’s the obvious image of computer jockeys toiling behind a dimly lit screen in a cube farm in Maryland, Utah or Silicon Valley.  But one of the front lines in the NSA’s war on terror looks very much like a manufacturing facility.  This is where packages containing computer equipment are confiscated after being intercepted, the packages opened and computer bugs being placed in each computer. The packages are then returned into the delivery stream good as new – with a special bonus of having NSA tracking devices attached at no extra charge.

nsa warehouse
Image: TechCrunch

Book “No Place To Hide” reveals NSA warehouse photos

Photos have surfaced from journalist Glenn Greenwald’s new book, No Place to Hide, that details the operation.  It shows nondescript manufacturing tech employees in t-shirts carefully opening computer boxes, connecting computer equipment to a machine and voila!  The computer is good as new and ready to spy on the unsuspecting user.

While the program may have been successful at one time, foreign intelligence services and terrorist networks were aware the NSA had access to computer-based and digital forms of communication and avoided these as a means to communicate important information, which was reported before Greenwald released Snowden’s revelations of massive NSA spying and data collection techniques on US citizens.

Greenwald’s book depicts a particular NSA operation called the Tailored Access Operations (TAO) division.  The TAO division would target packages destined for organizations targeted for surveillance, a list of which has yet to be revealed, according to a report in Business Insider.  According to the report the photos come from a TAO newsletter from June of 2010 and includes pictures of TAO employees opening a router from Cisco Systems, Inc. (NASDAQ:CSCO) and installing a “beacon firmware” device.  The report notes that these computer implants have been some of the most successful forms of spying to date because, once inside the computer network, they allow for a spy to poke around the entire system.

Process detailed

In the report an NSA manager described the technical process as follows:

Shipments of computer network devices (servers, routers, etc,) being delivered to our targets throughout the world are intercepted. Next, they are redirected to a secret location where Tailored Access Operations/Access Operations (AO-S326) employees, with the support of the Remote Operations Center (S321), enable the installation of beacon implants directly into our targets’ electronic devices. These devices are then re-packaged and placed back into transit to the original destination. All of this happens with the support of Intelligence Community partners and the technical wizards in TAO.

While this is the first known instance where actual photos have been produced, it is not the first time allegations of US surveillance agencies intercepting packages and planting computer bugs has been announced.  Der Spiegel reported this past December that US intelligence – NSA, CIA, FBI – routinely snatch packages containing laptops and other computer accessories to insert bugs before sending the packages back on their marry way.