Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

How the NSA May Be Tapping Yahoo’s and Google’s Fiber Optic Cables

NSA-Logomag380While he didn’t “explode in profanity,” as some of his company’s engineers are said to have done, Google’s chief legal officer slapped the National Security Agency pretty hard in a statement just shared with AllThingsD in reaction to new revelations about the agency’s efforts to spy on its users.

The Washington Post today reported, based on a set of newly leaked documents and slides from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, that the NSA has been using the fiber optic cables between data centers operated by Google and Yahoo to collect email communications. The story said the NSA exploits its own back-door access to data links between data centers, under an intelligence collection program called MUSCULAR.

Drummond said Google is “outraged.”

“We have long been concerned about the possibility of this kind of snooping, which is why we have continued to extend encryption across more and more Google services and links, especially the links in the slide. We do not provide any government, including the U.S. government, with access to our systems. We are outraged at the lengths to which the government seems to have gone to intercept data from our private fiber networks, and it underscores the need for urgent reform.”

The NSA issued its own statement, denying the Post’s reporting.

“NSA has multiple authorities that it uses to accomplish its mission, which is centered on defending the nation. The Washington Post’s assertion that we use Executive Order 12333 collection to get around the limitations imposed by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and FAA 702 is not true. The assertion that we collect vast quantities of U.S. persons’ data from this type of collection is also not true. NSA applies attorney general-approved processes to protect the privacy of U.S. persons – minimizing the likelihood of their information in our targeting, collection, processing, exploitation, retention, and dissemination. NSA is a foreign intelligence agency. And we’re focused on discovering and developing intelligence about valid foreign intelligence targets only.”

Earlier in the day Keith Alexander, speaking at a conference hosted by Bloomberg News in Washington, D.C., reiterated previous denials that the NSA breaks into the systems of companies like Google and Yahoo around the world:

“That’s never happened. In fact, there was this allegation last June that NSA was tapping into the servers of Yahoo or Google or our industry reps. That is factually incorrect. The servers and everything that we do with those, those companies work with us. They are compelled to work with us.”

One key document in the latest leak, a hand-drawn illustration, sketches out the part of the communications chain where Google’s infrastructure meets the public Internet, and points at an intriguing box labeled “GFE,” for “Google Front End Server,” with notes pointing to it that say “SSL added and removed here.” SSL refers, of course, to Secure Socket Layer, the common encryption technology that is used to protect much of the world’s Web traffic from prying eyes. There’s also a knowing smiley face, implying something interesting. So interesting, in fact, that two Google engineers who saw it reportedly “exploded in profanity,” the Post said.

Yahoo hasn’t yet provided an updated statement beyond one it gave to the Post: “We have strict controls in place to protect the security of our data centers, and we have not given access to our data centers to the NSA or to any other government agency.”

Assuming for the moment that the NSA is either lying or being less than fully forthcoming about its activities, this all raises the question of how in the heck the agency and its partner in the effort, the U.K.’s Government Communications Headquarters, might carry it out. The NSA uses what the Post calls “undisclosed interception points” to tap fiber optic lines between those data centers, primarily outside the U.S.

It will probably be a while before we learn anything about the mechanics of it all, but there are a few basic principles to understand about the tapping of fiber optic lines.

Equipment on either end of these cables convert electrical signals into light then later back into electrical signals. It’s during the phase when the data is being transmitted as light that the tap probably occurs.

The fundamental problem with fiber optic cables derives from the fact that light waves weaken over distance, so the signals have to be boosted or “regenerated” along the way. In fact, it’s required every 50 miles or so. This regeneration equipment is placed along the lines, whether they’re under the sea or on land, and provide natural places where some of these collection points might be.

One collection point may be mobile. At least one U.S. nuclear submarine, the USS Jimmy Carter, has been outfitted to carry out intelligence collection on undersea cables, and according to a Wall Street Journal report in 2001, the U.S. first started experimenting with methods to tap these cables in the mid-1990s. There are also other locations at which cables may be vulnerable, at or near the points where they reach land, as well as on land, too.

Then there are additional problems — presumably solved if the Post’s account is to be believed — regarding how the data is collected in remote locations and then assembled where it can be sifted and analyzed. They’re not simple problems, though not insurmountable, either.

Performing these intercepts outside U.S. territory means it could be done under a looser legal framework than in the U.S. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act doesn’t apply outside U.S. borders, and historically, Congress has conducted little oversight under the authority of Executive Order 12333, a Reagan-era directive that establishes the limits within which the NSA and other intelligence agencies can collect information on U.S. citizens.

In the end, the story and the documents on which it is based collectively raise many more questions than they answer. Just when you thought the disclosures from the Snowden files couldn’t get anymore troubling, they do.

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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work