How do U.S. intelligence agencies eavesdrop on the whole world? The ideal place to tap trans-border telecommunications is undersea cables that carry an estimated 90 percent of international voice traffic.
These cables date back in history to 1858 when they were first installed to support the international telegraph system, with the British taking the lead to wire the far reaches of its empire. Today a multi-billion dollar shipping industry continues to lay and maintain hundreds of such cables that crisscross the planet – over half a million miles of such cables are draped along the ocean floor and snaked around coastlines – to make landfall at special locations to be connected to national telecommunications systems.
The original cables were made of copper but about 25 years ago, they were replaced by fibre-optic cables. The oldest undersea cable was Trans Atlantic-8 (installed in 1988 by AT&T to transmit data from Tuckerton, New Jersey to Bude, Cornwall) which transmitted data at 280 megabits per second.
The latest cables like Yellow/Atlantic Crossing 2 (installed in 2000 and upgraded in 2007 by Level Three Communications from Brookhaven, New York to Bude, Cornwall) is capable of transmitting data at an astonishing 640 gigabits per second, which is roughly equal to 7.5 million simultaneous phone calls.
In order to make sure that data and voice are transmitted quickly and accurately across the world even if cables break or equipment fails, cable companies break the data into separate tiny packets that are dispatched over what they call “redundant fibre optic paths” across the ocean before it is captured and re-assembled on the other side, where it also becomes easy to intercept the data unobtrusively.
This is where Glimmerglass, a northern California company that sells optical fibre technology, comes in. In September 2002, the company started to ship a pioneering technology to help transmit data accurately over multiple optical paths.
Their patented “3D Micro-Electro-Mechanical-System (MEMS) mirror array” is composed of 210 gold-coated mirrors mounted on microscopic hinges, each measuring just one millimeter in diameter, etched on a single wafer of silicon.
Each mirror can be individually managed by remote operators anywhere in the world to capture or bounce the light signals and even more importantly, communicate with the other mirrors to make sure that the rest of the array stays in place, allowing very accurate data transmission. This technology slashed the cost of optical switching by a factor of 100, and the company claims that the switches are very robust with an expected failure rate of once in 30 years.
For telecommunication companies, Glimmerglass offers three hardware racks to handle optical data – the entry level “100″ system which can handle as many as 96×96 fibre ports for traffic as high as 100 gigabits per second all the way up to the “600″ system which can handle 192×192 fibre ports. It also offers the “3000″ system which can hold up to 12 racks.
A major advantage of the Glimmerglass technology, according to the company, is that operators can “monitor and test remote facilities” at undersea cable landings from a central office and then select any one of multiple optical signals to distribute it to multiple recipients, as well as the ability to redirect any signal.
“With Glimmerglass Intelligent Optical Systems, any signal travelling over fibre can be redirected in milliseconds, without adversely affecting customer traffic,” the company writes on its website. “At a landing site, this connectivity permits optical layer connections between the wet side and dry side to be re-provisioned in milliseconds from the Network Operations Center with a few clicks of a mouse.”
In another section of the public website the company also promotes a product named Glimmerglass Intelligent Optical System (IOS) that combines the 3D-MEMS switches with another Glimmerglass product called CyberSweep into an integrated product that has the ability to “monitor and selectively intercept communications”.
“Service Providers can use the speed and flexibility of the IOS to select and deliver signals to Law Enforcement Agencies (LEA),” add company brochures uncovered by Wikileaks. “The agency gains rapid access, not just to signals, but to individual wavelengths on those signals (and) make perfect photonic copies of optical signals for comprehensive analysis.”
Could the new Glimmerglass optical switching technology be the means by which the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) is tapping international phone calls, as revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden to the Guardian newspaper?
Vanee Vines, a spokesperson for the NSA, declined to comment on either Glimmerglass or the tapping of the undersea cables. Glimmerglass officials did not return multiple email and phone calls.
But Glimmerglass has told industry media that it sells this technology to some major government intelligence agencies.
“We’ve become a gold standard in the intel and defence community. They’re managing these optical signals so they can acquire, split, move and obtain the necessary information to protect the country,” Robert Lundy, the CEO of Glimmerglass for the last nine years, told Fierce Telecom, an industry blog, in an interview about global malware threats.
“At their undersea landing locations, their major points of presence, on a selective basis they need to acquire and monitor those optical signals rather than wait to get it off somebody’s, when it hits a PC or cellphone.”
Keith May, his deputy in charge of business development, has gone even further. “We believe that our 3D MEMS technology – as used by governments and various agencies – is involved in the collection of intelligence from sensors, satellites and undersea fibre systems,” May told the magazine. “We are deployed in several countries that are using it for lawful interception.”
Fulfilling a dream
Analysis of bulk telecommunications data to track as yet unknown targets has long been on the NSA wish list. For decades, the agency stuck to following specific individuals because there was no way to capture and analyse everything.
In 2000, two rival projects were commissioned to try to collect “all the signals all the time”. Science Applications International Corporation, based in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, was given a contract to design a collection system called TrailBlazer, while the NSA’s in-house Signals Intelligence Automation Research Center (SARC) worked on a project called ThinThread.
TrailBlazer was eventually jettisoned as unworkable after 1.2 billion dollars had been spent. ThinThread was more successful, according to its proponents, because it was able to selectively process important information and dump the rest. The designers also created controls to anonymise the data collection to avoid violating privacy laws.
ThinThread could “correlate data from financial transactions, travel records, Web searches, G.P.S. equipment, and any other ‘attributes’ that an analyst might find useful in pinpointing ‘the bad guys,’” writes Jane Mayer in the New Yorker magazine, based on her interviews with former NSA staff.
Unfortunately for the SARC team, ThinThread was vetoed by upper management at the NSA in August 2001. But after the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks, the NSA is believed to have returned to the drawing board. Rumor has it that the project was restarted, stripped of any privacy controls.
Some of the scientists who worked on the project recently came forward to say that they had made a mistake.
“I should apologise to the American people,” William Binney, a former NSA staffer who was in charge of designing ThinThread, told Mayer. “It’s violated everyone’s rights. It can be used to eavesdrop on the whole world.”
Pratap Chatterjee is executive director of CorpWatch.