Tue, Dec 03, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Government may have penetrated Internet cable

Modern spy tactics are bypassing communication companies’ data protection systems

By Nicole Perlroth and John Markoff  /  NY Times News Service, SAN FRANCISCO

Illustration: Yusha

The revelation that the US’ National Security Agency (NSA) was able to eavesdrop on the communications of Google and Yahoo users without breaking into the companies’ data centers sounded like something from a Robert Ludlum spy thriller.

How on earth, the companies asked, did the NSA get their data without their knowing about it?

The most likely answer is a modern spin on a century-old eavesdropping tradition.

People knowledgeable about Google and Yahoo’s infrastructure say they believe that government spies bypassed the big Internet companies and hit them at a weak spot — the fiber-optic cables that connect data centers around the world that are owned by companies like Verizon Communications, the BT Group, the Vodafone Group and Level 3 Communications. In particular, fingers have been pointed at Level 3, the world’s largest so-called Internet backbone provider, whose cables are used by Google and Yahoo.

The Internet companies’ data centers are locked down with full-time security and state-of-the-art surveillance, including heat sensors and iris scanners. However, between the data centers — on Level 3’s fiber-optic cables that connected those massive computer farms — information was unencrypted and an easier target for government interception efforts, according to three people with knowledge of Google’s and Yahoo’s systems who spoke on condition of anonymity.

It is impossible to say for certain how the NSA managed to get Google’s and Yahoo’s data without the companies’ knowledge. However, in response to concerns over those vulnerabilities, both companies recently said they had begun encrypting data that runs on the cables between their data centers. Microsoft is considering a similar move.

“Everyone was so focused on the NSA secretly getting access to the front door that there was an assumption they weren’t going behind the companies’ backs and tapping data through the back door, too,” said Kevin Werbach, an associate professor at the Wharton School.

Data transmission lines have a long history of being tapped.

As far back as the days of the telegraph, spy agencies have located their operations in proximity to communications companies. Indeed, before the advent of the Internet, the NSA and its predecessors for decades operated listening posts next to the long-distance lines of phone companies to monitor international voice traffic.

Beginning in the 1960s, a spy operation code-named Echelon targeted the Soviet Union and its allies’ voice, fax and data traffic.

In the 1990s, the emergence of the Internet both complicated the task of the intelligence agencies and presented powerful new spying opportunities based on the ability to process vast amounts of computer data.

In 2002, John Poindexter, who had been national security adviser under former president Ronald Reagan, proposed the Total Information Awareness plan, an effort to scan the world’s electronic information — including phone calls, e-mails and financial and travel records. That effort was scrapped in 2003 after a public outcry over potential privacy violations.

The technologies Poindexter proposed were similar to what became reality years later in NSA surveillance programs like Prism and Bullrun.

The Internet effectively mingled domestic and international communications, erasing the bright line that had been erected to protect against domestic surveillance. Although the Internet is designed to be a highly decentralized system, in practice a small group of backbone providers carry almost all of the network’s data.

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