Spy agency already has capability to secretly tap undersea fiber-optic data
WASHINGTON – “Brazil, Europe plan undersea cable to skirt U.S. spying,” trumpeted one of the world’s top headlines yesterday, but it turns out the strategy to thwart possible U.S. surveillance may be an exercise in futility.
Brazil and the European Union announced their agreement to install a fiber optic cable under the Atlantic Ocean from one continent to the other to prevent U.S. surveillance of Internet traffic between them – after revelations the U.S. National Security Agency spied on their communications.
But the $185 million cable project will not necessarily keep spying eyes and ears from the data transmitted across it, since the NSA already can spy, if it chooses, on undersea fiber optics.
While the National Security Agency is better known in recent months for acquiring information from mobile phones given its vast global network of microwave listening stations and satellites, it also has the technical ability to tap into the proposed fiber-optic submarine cable – and without the intrusion being detected.
“We have to respect privacy, human rights and the sovereignty of nations,” said Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, noting that Brazil and the EU are concerned about the “neutrality” of the Internet. “We don’t want business to be spied upon. The Internet is one of the best things man has ever invented. So we agreed for the need to guarantee the neutrality of the network, a democratic area where we can protect freedom of expression.”
Rousseff was particularly outraged upon learning the NSA had been spying on her communications and was gaining access to all Internet communications, including texting on phones.
A similar reaction followed revelation that the NSA had been scooping up all data of Internet activities from Europeans, including listening in on the personal mobile phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The EU threatened to suspend agreements with the U.S. on data transfers unless there were guarantees on the protection of data from EU citizens.
While President Obama eventually ordered a ban on spying on leaders of close allies, the trust was broken.
As a result, Brazil and the EU decided to undertake this joint venture between Brazil’s Telebras and Spain’s IslaLink Submarine Cables to lay the communications link.
And while it will draw Brazil closer to the EU in terms of trade, it will definitely not be immune from being tapped.
Fiber-optic technology allows thousands of phone calls, faxes, emails and encrypted data to be translated into beams of light and send through a single strand of glass as thin as a human hair.
Undersea cables contain eight such strands, or fibers. To gain access to the data, NSA needs to gain access to those light beams, which becomes challenging in an ocean environment.
But NSA actually developed this capability in the 1990s when a specially outfitted submarine – the U.S.S. Jimmy Carter – successfully sliced into a fiber-optic cable unnoticed.
The Carter is a modified Seawolf-class submarine built by General Dynamic Electric Boat in Connecticut. At the Navy’s request, GE added an extension to the hull that provided another 100 feet to its 350-foot length. Sources say the modification cost almost $2 billion.
The hull extension, say sources, was a floodable chamber to allow divers and machines to remove objects from the seafloor or carry monitoring devices to be attached to the undersea cables, to be removed later for analysis.
It was this type of submarine undersea tapping that former NSA employee Ronald Pelton, in the 1980s, talked about with the then-Soviet Union. He revealed Operation Ivy Bells, an NSA and Navy program to surreptitiously wiretap undersea cables to monitor Soviet military communications and track Soviet submarines.
Pelton later was caught, tried and convicted of espionage. At age 73, he remains in federal prison.
Disclosure of NSA eavesdropping on microwave communications, sources say, could force the agency to go back to tapping into fiber-optic cables.
There would be serious legal issues, since a significant portion of any undersea communications could involve U.S. citizens.
And NSA wouldn’t be getting only metadata, which agency officials swear is all they obtain, although informed sources have told WND that the NSA can access the actual phone conversations based on that metadata.
In undersea cable tapping, the NSA would get access to all of the communications and could secretly siphon off data without detection.
The undersea fiber-optic cable is sheathed in a thick steel hulk and buried in a trench. Beyond a thousand feet, however, the cable usually is left uncovered on the ocean floor.