Matt Blaze on TAO's Methods
Matt Blaze makes a point that I have been saying for a while now:
Don’t get me wrong, as a security specialist, the NSA’s Tailored Access Operations (TAO) scare the daylights of me. I would never want these capabilities used against me or any other innocent person. But these tools, as frightening and abusable as they are, represent far less of a threat to our privacy and security than almost anything else we’ve learned recently about what the NSA has been doing.
TAO is retail rather than wholesale.
That is, as well as TAO works (and it appears to work quite well indeed), they can’t deploy it against all of us – or even most of us. They must be installed on each individual target’s own equipment, sometimes remotely but sometimes through “supply chain interdiction” or “black bag jobs”. By their nature, targeted exploits must be used selectively. Of course, “selectively” at the scale of NSA might still be quite large, but it is still a tiny fraction of what they collect through mass collection.
This is important. As scarily impressive as TAO’s implant catalog is, it’s targeted. We can argue about how it should be targeted — who counts as a “bad guy” and who doesn’t — but it’s much better than the NSA’s collecting cell phone location data on everyone on the planet. The more we can deny the NSA the ability to do broad wholesale surveillance on everyone, and force them to do targeted surveillance in individuals and organizations, the safer we all are.
Me speaking at the LISA conference last year:
What the NSA leaks show is that “we have made surveillance too cheap. We have to make surveillance expensive again,” Schneier said. “The goal should be to force the NSA , and all similar adversaries, to abandon wholesale collection in favor of targeted collection.”
Blaze’s essay is good throughout, and worth reading.
EDITED TO ADD (1/20): A related essay.