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Independent, Untappable Fiber Networks: Good luck with That

March 03, 2014

Independent, Untappable Fiber Networks: Good luck with That

By Doug Mohney
Contributing Editor

Brazil and Europe -- and many others, less loudly, no doubt -- are planning an undersea cable to avoid the great vacuum cleaner of the U.S. National Security Agency (News - Alert) (NSA). I'm not convinced that this will be money successfully spent and I have about a dozen reasons why.

The $185 million Brazil-European Union undersea fiber optical cable will run from Lisbon, Portugal to Fortaleza, Brazil. A joint venture between Brazil's Telebras and Spain's IslaLink Submarine Cables, Brazil firms and pension funds are expected to put up more than 50 percent of the project.  

Physical security of the fiber looks good at first glance, since the route doesn't come close to the U.S. or any "allied" landing site that might be tempted to have Uncle Sam or an affiliated national intelligence agency get direct access to the fiber.

Looks are deceiving.

During the Cold War, the United States ran Operation Ivy Bells. The U.S. Navy took a nuclear submarine into Soviet territorial waters in the Sea of Okhotsk on numerous occasions to plant and service taps on Soviet military cables --among the most sensitive projects ever undertaken by the U.S. government. The Soviets believed (like Google (News - Alert) and Yahoo did once upon a time) that the cable was secure and left the majority of conversations across it unencrypted.

Ultimately, more cable taps were installed on Soviet undersea communications cables around the globe, resulting in over a decade of intelligence collecting. It was a bonanza ultimately compromised by a disgruntled NSA employee -- déjà vu all over again. The Soviets started fishing for taps and tightened up their communications security.

Consider the Brazil/Spain cable. The majority of the cable will be in international waters, so a U.S. submarine -- more likely a remote-operated vehicle these days -- will have plenty of places to access the cable without having to creep around.   Public satellite networks, such as the Planet Labs or Skybox Imaging constellations, should be able to document the cable route with accuracy, so there won't have to be a lot of hunting around on the ocean floor.

Exactly what methods would be used to tap the cable aren't clear, but the NSA likely has several methods available based upon its own role in securing U.S. government communications for eavesdroppers. I'd be willing to bet one feature of a high-speed tap would be a dedicated fiber line back to a U.S.-based collections point to avoid monthly submarine trips and collect information in near-real time.

The processes listed above only begin to document how an undersea cable could be security compromised before you start talking about how to infiltrate cable landing points on either end by working with a friendly third-party. Running a separate cable dedicated to avoiding the threat of NSA listening is merely an invitation for that agency to scrutinize it in the future.

Edited by Cassandra Tucker
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