NSA Top Hacker: Here’s How to Make My Life Hard

by Robert Hackett  |  published on January 31, 2016

When Rob Joyce, head of the National Security Agency’s top hacking outfit, made an appearance at the brand new Usenix Enigma security conference in San Francisco this week, he didn’t strike the casual onlooker as an alpha predator. He had neatly parted dark brown hair with slightly graying sideburns, and he wore a light blue button-down shirt tucked into slacks. His demeanor more resembled that of a high school physics teacher than a dogged hunter.

Don’t be fooled though—the man should not be underestimated. Joyce leads the NSA’s euphemistically labeled “tailored access operations” unit, or TAO. Despite having a moniker that recalls the harmony of the universe in a similarly named ancient Chinese philosophy, Joyce’s team is all yang and no yin. It consists of the nation’s greatest and most indefatigable digital attackers. (Joyce took the reins in April 2013, shortly before Edward Snowden leaked a trove of government documents that, among other things, revealed the existence of TAO.)

On Wednesday the hacker-in-chief, as Wired has dubbed him, delivered a rare talk at the event. In case there’s any doubt, when the nation’s top information infiltrator dishes on the dark arts of breaking into and entering computer networks, cybersecurity wonks stop whatever they’re doing. Ears perk up. People pay attention. His presentation was easily the confab’s main attraction.

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