Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Creepy, Long-Standing Practice of Undersea Cable Tapping


The Creepy, Long-Standing Practice of Undersea Cable Tapping

The newest NSA leaks reveal that governments are probing "the Internet's

backbone." How does that work?

Olga Khazan Jul 16 2013, 1:55 PM ET





In the early 1970's, the U.S. government learned that an undersea cable ran

parallel to the Kuril Islands off the eastern coast of Russia, providing a

vital communications link between two major Soviet naval bases. The problem?

The Soviet Navy had completely blocked foreign ships from entering the



Not to be deterred, the National Security Agency launched Operation Ivy

Bells, deploying fast-attack submarines and combat divers to drop waterproof

recording pods on the lines. Every few weeks, the divers would return to

gather the tapes and deliver them to the NSA, which would then binge-listen

to their juicy disclosures.


The project ended in 1981, when NSA employee Ronald Pelton sold information

about the program to the KGB for $35,000. He's still serving his life prison



The operation might have ended, but for the NSA, this underwater strategy

clearly stuck around.


In addition to gaining access to web companies' servers and asking for phone

metadata, we've now learned that both the U.S. and the U.K. spy agencies are

tapping directly into the Internet's backbone -- the undersea fiber optic

cables that shuttle online communications between countries and servers. For

some privacy activists, this process is even more worrisome than monitoring

call metadata because it allows governments to make copies of everything

that transverses these cables, if they wanted to.


The British surveillance programs have fittingly sinister titles: "Mastering

the Internet" and "Global Telecoms Exploitation," according to The Guardian.


A subsidiary program for these operations -- Tempora -- sucks up around 21

million gigabytes per day and stores the data for a month. The data is

shared with NSA, and there are reportedly 550 NSA and GCHQ analysts poring

over the information they've gathered from at least 200 fiber optic cables

so far.


The scale of the resulting data harvest is tremendous. From The Guardian:


    This includes recordings of phone calls, the content of email messages,

entries on Facebook and the history of any internet user's access to

websites -- all of which is deemed legal, even though the warrant system was

supposed to limit interception to a specified range of targets.


In an interview with online security analyst Jacob Appelbaum, NSA leaker

Edward Snowden called the British spy agency GCHQ "worse than" the NSA,

saying it represents the first "full take" system, in which surveillance

networks catch all Internet traffic regardless of its content. Appelbaum

asked Snowden if "anyone could escape" Tempora:


"Well, if you had the choice, you should never send information over British

lines or British servers," Snowden said. "Even the Queen's selfies with her

lifeguards would be recorded, if they existed."


The U.S.'s own cable-tapping program, known by the names OAKSTAR, STORMBREW,

BLARNEY and FAIRVIEW, as revealed in an NSA PowerPoint slide, apparently

functions similarly to Tempora, accessing "communications on fiber cables

and infrastructure as data flows past," according to The Washington Post.

The slide indicates that Prism and these so-called "upstream" programs work

together somehow, with an arrow saying "You Should Use Both" pointing to the

two operations.


So how does one tap into an underwater cable?


The process is extremely secretive, but it seems similar to tapping an

old-fashioned, pre-digital telephone line -- the eavesdropper gathers up all

the data that flows past, then deciphers it later.


Screen Shot 2013-07-16 at 11.17.56 AM.png

A map of undersea cables. (TeleGeography)


More than 550,000 miles of flexible undersea cables about the size of garden

watering hoses carry all the world's emails, searches, and tweets. Together,

they shoot the equivalent of several hundred Libraries of Congress worth of

information back and forth every day.


In 2005, the Associated Press reported that a submarine called the USS Jimmy

Carter had been repurposed to carry crews of technicians to the bottom of

the sea so they could tap fiber optic lines. The easiest place to get into

the cables is at the regeneration points -- spots where their signals are

amplified and pushed forward on their long, circuitous journeys. "At these

spots, the fiber optics can be more easily tapped, because they are no

longer bundled together, rather laid out individually," Deutsche Welle



But such aquatic endeavors may no longer even be necessary. The cables make

landfall at coastal stations in various countries, where their data is sent

on to domestic networks, and it's easier to tap them on land than

underwater. Britain is, geographically, in an ideal position to access to

cables as they emerge from the Atlantic, so the cooperation between the NSA

and GCHQ has been key. Beyond that partnership, there are the other members

of the "Five Eyes" -- the Australians, the New Zealanders, and the Canadians

-- that also collaborate with the U.S., Snowden said.


The tapping process apparently involves using so-called "intercept probes."

According to two analysts I spoke to, the intelligence agencies likely gain

access to the landing stations, usually with the permission of the host

countries or operating companies, and use these small devices to capture the

light being sent across the cable. The probe bounces the light through a

prism, makes a copy of it, and turns it into binary data without disrupting

the flow of the original Internet traffic.


"We believe our 3D MEMS technology -- as used by governments and various

agencies -- is involved in the collection of intelligence from ... undersea

fibers," said a director of business development at Glimmerglass, a

government contractor that appeared, at least according to a 2010 Aviation

Week article, to conduct similar types of interceptions, though it's unclear

whether they took part in the British Tempora or the U.S. upstream programs.

In a PowerPoint presentation, Glimmerglass once boasted that it provided

"optical cyber solutions" to the intelligence community, offering the

ability to monitor everything from Gmail to Facebook. "We are deployed in

several countries that are using it for lawful interception. They've passed

laws, publicly known, that they will monitor all international traffic for

interdiction of any kind of terrorist activity."


Screen Shot 2013-07-10 at 6.54.48 PM.png

Slide from a Glimmerglass presentation


The British publication PC Pro presented another theory: that slightly

bending the cables could allow a receiver to capture their contents.


    One method is to bend the cable and extract enough light to sniff out

the data. "You can get these little cylindrical devices off eBay for about

$1,000. You run the cable around the cylinder, causing a slight bend in

cable. It will emit a certain amount of light, one or two decibels. That

goes into the receiver and all that data is stolen in one or two decibels of

light. Without interrupting transfer flow, you can read everything going on

on an optical network," said Everett.


    The loss is so small, said Everett, that anyone who notices it might

attribute it to a loose connection somewhere along the line. "They wouldn't

even register someone's tapping into their network," he added.


Once it's gathered, the data gets sifted. Most of it is discarded, but the

filters pull out material that touches on one of the 40,000 search terms

chosen by the NSA and GCHQ -- that's the content the two agencies inspect

more closely.


The British anti-surveillance group Privacy International has filed a

lawsuit against the U.K. government, arguing that such practices amount to

"blanked surveillance" and saying that British courts do "not provide

sufficiently specific or clear authorization for such wide-ranging and

universal interception of communications." Their argument is that the

existing surveillance laws are from the phone-tapping days and can't be

applied to modern, large-scale electronic data collection.


"If their motivation is to catch terrorists, then are there less intrusive

methods than spying on everyone whose traffic happens to transverse the

U.K.?" said Eric King, head of research at Privacy International.


Meanwhile, the British agency, the GCHQ, has defending their practices by

saying that they are merely looking for a few suspicious "needles" in a

giant haystack of data, and that the techniques have allowed them to uncover

terrorist plots.


If groups like Privacy International are successful, it may put an end to

the capture of domestic Internet data within the U.K., but as NSA expert

Matthew Aid recently told me, since 80 percent of the fiber optic data flows

through the U.S., it wouldn't stop the massive surveillance operations here

or in other countries -- even if the person on the sending end was British.


It's also worth noting that this type of tapping has been going on for years

-- it's just that we're now newly getting worked up about it. In 2007, the

New York Times thus described President Bush's expansion of electronic

surveillance: "the new law allows the government to eavesdrop on those

conversations without warrants -- latching on to those giant switches -- as

long as the target of the government's surveillance is 'reasonably believed'

to be overseas."


Want to avoid being a "target" of this "switch-latching"? A site called

"Prism-break" recently released a smorgasbord of encrypted browsing, chat,

and email services that supposedly allow the user to evade government



The only platform for which there is no encrypted alternative is Apple's

iOS, a proprietary software, for which the site had this warning:


"You should not entrust neither your communications nor your data to a

closed source device."



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