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When wiretaps won't do, the CIA's 'black bag' squads get data the old-fashioned way

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CIA lobby (wikimedia commons)
CIA lobby (wikimedia commons)

There's been lots of talk about electronic surveillance and government-sponsored hacking lately, but Foreign Policy takes a fascinating look at how the Central Intelligence Agency's digital "black bag" squads get access the old fashioned way — by breaking into peoples' houses.

Carried out "at a tempo not seen since the height of the Cold War"

Authorized by the CIA's Office of Technical Collection, the so-called "off-net operations" or "black bag jobs" have been a boon to the National Security Agency over the past decade, filling in the blanks where PRISM, hacking, and existing wiretaps won't get the job done. Foreign Policy reports that over the past decade these operations have been carried out "at a tempo not seen since the height of the Cold War," using agents to physically infiltrate facilities and residences, steal data off hard drives, install wiretaps on foreign networks, and plant spyware on the computers of surveillance targets.

According to US intelligence sources, recent CIA black bag jobs have "given the NSA access to a number of new and critically important targets around the world, especially in China and elsewhere in East Asia, as well as the Middle East, the Near East, and South Asia," though there's been no evidence of them occurring on US soil. With the NSA now coming under fire in Washington, the CIA's operations are an interesting example of how closely the two agencies — once fierce rivals — have been working together. Check out Foreign Policy for the full story.