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U.S. is one of the biggest hackers out there: Here's why

By Michael Mayday , May 27, 2013 06:02 PM EDT
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President Barack Obama has complained bitterly about China's alleged hacking of U.S.-based companies and government agencies, going so far as to publicly out a Chinese state-sponsored hacking group known as Unit 61398 in February.

But Unit 61398 isn't the only government-backed hacking group in town, nor is it, it seems, the most advanced. That title goes to the U.S. and its elite hacking teams.

The U.S. counterpart to Unit 61398 is referred to as Tailored Access Operations (TAO), and it operates as a wing of the secretive National Security Agency. According to two anonymous officials talking to Bloomberg, the unit gathers vast swaths of digital data - from international money-laundering schemes and foreign military readiness to internal political strife of countries with growing power.

And it does so automatically.

The two security officials described a system which allowed U.S.-backed cyberspies, typically culled from special military units, to sit back in relative ease as an automated program collects and deposits overseas data into a fusion center for analysis. If a computer or network proves especially hard to crack, a TAO member can simply jump into action and hack it themselves.

All told, the officials claim the TAO collects two petabytes from hard drives and servers worldwide in an hour, equivalent to nearly 2.1 million gigabytes. At that rate, it would take the TAO only 60 hours to fill IBM's current data storage behemoth, which holds up to 120 petabytes of data.

These capabilities, combined with the U.S. defense department's growing collection of zero day exploits - vulnerabilities found in popular programs and operating systems - makes U.S.-backed hackers particularly formidable.

But these operations give China a good deal of political leverage against the U.S. government, especially when U.S. politicians complain of Chinese state sponsored hacking. While both governments have expressed interest in negotiating "acceptable norms of behavior in cyberspace," according to The New York Times, they still haven't reconciled past cyberattacks on one another.

While Chinese hackers have targeted U.S. government agencies in the past, and likely still do, it's most aggressive hacking programs go towards stealing U.S. trade secrets.

Those programs, despite U.S. pressure, will likely continue.

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