The National Security Agency’s Office of Target Pursuit (OTP) maintains a team of engineers dedicated to cracking the encrypted traffic of virtual private networks (VPNs) and has developed tools that could potentially uncloak the traffic in the majority of VPNs used to secure traffic passing over the Internet today, according to documents published this week by the German news magazine Der Speigel. A slide deck from a presentation by a member of OTP’s VPN Exploitation Team, dated September 13, 2010, details the process the NSA used at that time to attack VPNs—including tools with names drawn from Star Trek and other bits of popular culture.
OTP’s VPN exploit team had members assigned to branches focused on specific regional teams, as well as a “Cross-Target Support Branch” and a custom development team for building specialized VPN exploits. At the regional level, the VPN team representatives acted as liaisons to analysts, providing information on new VPN attacks and gathering requirements for specific targets to be used in developing new ones.
While some VPN technologies—specifically, those based on the Point-to-Point Protocol (PPTP)—have previously been identified as being vulnerable because of the way they exchange keys at the beginning of a VPN session, others have generally been assumed to be safer from scrutiny. But in 2010, the NSA had already developed tools to attack the most commonly used VPN encryption schemes: Secure Shell (SSH), Internet Protocol Security (IPSec), and Secure Socket Layer (SSL) encryption.