When the Tailored Operations Access unit of the NSA was first revealed to the public back in December of last year, the capabilities and tools that the agents had at their disposal caught the world completely off guard, and gave us a real picture at where surveillance technology had progressed to in the few short years since it was re-legalized by the PATRIOT Act in 2001.
USB chargers that could transfer malware onto a user’s phone, monitor cables which could reproduce images and transmit them back to a base station wirelessly, keyboards that could track, log, and archive millions of keystrokes before using up all its onboard storage, no part of our systems seemed to be safe anymore.
The Advanced Network Technology (ANT) catalog was a veritable treasure trove of surveillance equipment, shared between members of the agency and containing all the necessary components you would need to listen in on someone’s life with just one or two taps placed covertly on the cables that came from and went into their desktop or mobile device. If an agent was on an investigation and needed to track the images on someone else’s monitor that wasn’t hooked up to any form of classical Internet, the ANT catalog was where they could find what they needed to move things forward and keep the operation under wraps.
By employing an older technology known as software-defined radio, wireless bugging devices can now be impossibly small, and damn-near undetectable unless the target of the mission knew exactly what they were looking for. Because the nano-eavesdropping kits use software in conjunction with hardware to track and transmit data, the amount of physical space a tap requires can be limited to as much as one transistor attached to a two centimeter long piece of wire.
Now a group of researchers led by Michael Ossmann at Great Scott Gadgets claim they have successfully recreated several of the bugging devices originally invented by the TAO unit at their shop in Evergreen, Colorado.
“Of all the technologies revealed in the NSA ANT catalog, perhaps the most exotic is the use of RF retroreflectors for over-the-air surveillance. These tiny implants, without any power supply, transmit information intercepted from digital or analog communications when irradiated by radio signals from an outside source. This modern class of radar eavesdropping technology has never been demonstrated in public before today. I’ve constructed and tested my own RF retroreflectors, and I’ll show you how they work and how easy they are to build with modest soldering skills.”
Ossmann plans to show off his discovery at the upcoming Defcon conference in Las Vegas this August, presenting alongside a long list of Internet security companies and entrepreneurs who will be offering up their own unique ways for the average user to defend themselves against the NSA and their cohorts at the GCHQ.
The NSA has already attempted to use this story as a reason why the Snowden leaks were a bad thing, pointing to the potential dangers of these types of technologies falling into the wrong hands as irrefutable proof that they were right to do what they did all along.