In less than eighteen months since Der Spiegel and Jacob Appelbaum published leaked pages of the National Security Agency’s ANT catalog used by their Tailored Access Operations (TAO) division, the NSA Playset project is now able to replicate many capabilities of TAO’s toolbox for the purpose of conducting research on how the same approaches might be used by other adversaries:
Many of the software components of the 50-page ANT catalog were things that had already been developed by security researchers. Some of the discovered capabilities appeared to stem from off-the-shelf hardware (or its equivalent) and software similar to existing tools; they were simply combined in a package suitable for spy work. But other pieces of hardware in the NSA’s catalog appeared to have no openly available equivalent—such as wireless bugs planted in computer cables or connectors. Some of those bugs were radio “retro-reflectors,” wiretaps that only broadcast data when hit by a directed radio signal. (It’s similar in concept to “The Thing”—the infamous bug Soviet spies planted inside the US Embassy in Moscow.)
“We had suspected that these capabilities existed,” Ossmann told Ars. “But there hadn’t been any open research done on them.” So just over a year ago, Ossmann and others kicked off the project to create “a series of dead simple, easy to use tools to enable the next generation of security researchers,” as the project’s Wiki page describes it. So far, they’ve been able to produce capabilities like those in the ANT catalog at a fraction of what the NSA spent to develop them.
“I wanted to talk about how we can build these tools—the same tools nation states use—in an open community, at least to serve as demo of threats people haven’t considered before,” Ossmann said at Black Hat. “I focused on the hardware tools in the catalog to get some ideas of how we can build these things. But I didn’t originally think I would go ahead and build any of them.”
After doing a talk with Dean Pierce (who Ossmann said originally coined the term “NSA Playset”) about the ANT catalog in July 2015 at Toorcamp, Ossmann’s thinking on the project evolved. Pierce and a number of other contributors soon signed on to make contributions to the NSA Playset, adding a few projects started before the Playset was conceived. In total, Ossmann and the other collaborators have now created 15 tools that, in theory, just about anyone could use.
Sounds like this might be a fun, rainy day project to play around with to see exactly how these tools operate.