Germany's Der Spiegel newsmagazine reported Monday that the U.S. National Security Agency has for years compromised a wide range of hardware devices, including PCs, iPhones, hard drives, and network routers, as part of its spying activities. The NSA also installed back doors into European telecom networks and into BlackBerry's network operations center to spy on communications, the Der Spiegel report says.
The spy agency's Tailored Access Operations (TAO) unit is alleged to have installed such hidden access methods in a variety of devices from Apple, Cisco Systems, Dell, Huawei, Juniper, Maxtor, Samsung, Seagate, and Western Digital, among others. Although the precise methods are unclear, many seem to involve installation of monitoring software or modified firmware -- some on devices intercepted in transit from vendors to their customers.
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Apple, Cisco Systems, Dell, and Huawei have all responded publicly expressing concern over the alleged back doors and promising to inform customers of any vulnerabilities found. All said they were unaware of any vulnerabilities or of the TAO program. The Der Spiegel report says the companies did not appear to have cooperated with the NSA to install the back doors, and Apple today said bluntly that it has never worked with the NSA on any such efforts on any products, comparing the NSA to hackers and saying it would "defend our customers from security attacks, regardless of who's behind them."
The purported iPhone back door has gained much attention. The NSA slides that Der Spiegel says it obtained show that in 2008 the NSA figured out how to install spyware in the iPhone, though it required hands-on access to the device. The slides claim the NSA was working on ways to remotely install such spyware. It is unclear whether the NSA succeeded in its remote-installation efforts and if so for what versions of iOS.
It's common for spy agencies to install spyware on specific people's devices; China's agents routinely install spyware on Western business travelers' PCs and mobile devices, for example, and the ongoing revelations by ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden show that the U.S. and other major powers spy on others' citizens as aggressively as the Chinese have long been criticized for doing.
In a statement, the NSA did not deny the spying, and it said any activities it undertakes are limited to foreigners. However, some of Snowden's revelations have shown that the spying extends to U.S. citizens as well.
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