Were Fiber Optic Cables Key to the NSA Snooping?

By Steve Anderson November 27, 2013

Fiber optics have proven a spectacular idea, bringing out Internet access and the like not only to places that formerly couldn't get access to same, but also better and faster Internet access as well. But there is something of a darker side to fiber optics, as was suggested by those familiar with Google and Yahoo's overall infrastructure: it may have been the fiber optics that allowed the NSA to perform some of its recent snooping operations, essentially bringing a modern-era twist to familiar old methods.

Essentially, say those reports, the NSA may well have simply pulled an end run around the major Internet companies and snooped simply by tapping in directly to the cables that provide the backbone to connect data centers worldwide. Several companies own such backbones, including the BT Group, the Vodafone Group, Verizon Communications and Level 3 Communications, and it was Level 3 that found itself perhaps most under the gun in the wake of the incidents.

It can't be definitively said just how the NSA actually did the job, but it does seem—at least to some—like the most likely point of entry. Data centers at the major Internet companies are protected with a sheer elan that might make Daniel Ocean swallow hard; heat sensors, iris scanners, and full-time security are just part of the package. But the cables connecting the data centers are said to be much different, sending unencrypted information downstream and posing a much easier potential target. In fact, both Google and Yahoo have recently been spotted saying that data sent on said cables is now encrypted, and reports suggest Microsoft is at least considering doing likewise.

Such a move, meanwhile, would have a nice slug of precedent behind it, as back in the 1960s, the United States engaged in a project going by “Echelon,” in which voice, fax, and even data traffic on fiber optics—as well as by satellite and microwave—were targeted. The arrival of the Internet only complicated matters, but at the same time made the potential prizes much richer in terms of information available. The Internet's largely global, nature made issues of domestic surveillance somewhat moot, since domestic and international communications were effectively entwined.

Level 3 Communications, meanwhile, is perhaps the largest such traffic-carrying network out there, making it a prime potential target for snooping. Though it's unclear if Level 3 was voluntarily handing over information, reports suggest it may not matter what Level 3 did, as it was entirely possible that the NSA and similar could just proceed downstream and gather what data it liked. Verizon's CEO, Lowell C. McAdam, also threw in some comment on this issue back in September, saying “At the end of the day, if the Justice Department shows up at your door, you have to comply. We have gag orders on what we can say and can’t defend ourselves, but we were told they do this with every carrier.”

No matter how it's approached, it's a disturbing picture. Are the NSA and its cohorts forcing access to communications systems in a bid to spy on American citizens? Does the objection of companies like Google and Yahoo even matter in the face of the possibilities? Even with what was revealed about the PRISM affair, are there other such matters that haven't yet been revealed? It's the kind of thing that keeps privacy wonks up late at night, and the kind of thing that likely makes everyone a little concerned, from regular people to businesses and well beyond. 

Edited by Ryan Sartor

Contributing TechZone360 Writer

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