The U.S. government has required private companies that operate fiberoptic cable to give the government access to their networks for surveillance.
Fiberoptic cable transmits massive amount of data around the world at lightening speeds. In order to access this data, the government also needs access to these cables. According to the Washington Post, a cabal of lawyers from the FBI and departments of Defense, Justice, and Homeland Security — dubbed “Team Telecom” — required fiberoptic companies to maintain internal groups of employees with security clearances to ensure that surveillance requests from the government were filled quickly and confidentially.
The first “Network Security Agreement” was signed in September 2003 by telecom company Global Crossing to “address U.S. law enforcement and national security concerns raised by foreign investment in critical U.S. telecommunications infrastructure.” Asian companies were buying up fiberoptic cable, and the U.S. government was concerned that this would present a security threat as well as impede its surveillance efforts. The internal groups were charged with securing information and protesting against malicious attacks. However, this also meant that when the government needed access to data flowing through the networks, “the companies have systems in place to provide it securely.”
Global Crossing connected 27 countries across four continents, and the Network Security Agreement required it to have a “Network Operations Center” on U.S. soil that could be visited by government officials with 30 minutes of warning, the Post reported. It complements the NSA’s PRISM program, which the U.S. government used to mine user data from technology companies like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft. News about PRISM broke after NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked top secret slides about the program to the media. One of the slides mentioned a different program called “Upstream,” which collects “communications on fiber cables and infrastructure as data flows past” and includes a map of undersea cable networks.
“Under that provision, the government may serve a court order on a company compelling it to reach into its networks for data on multiple targets who are foreigners reasonably believed to be overseas,” the Post said. “At an Internet gateway, the government may specify a number of e-mail addresses of foreigners to be targeted without the court signing off on each one.”
This e-mail traffic can then be turned over to the government.
Snowden revealed in June that British spy agency GCHQ had a program called Tempora that intercepted data through fiberoptic cable. GCHQ has tapped 200 of the world’s fiberoptic cables to surveil more than 600 million “telephone events a day,” intercept e-mail, check Internet users’ access of websites, and see what people are posting on Facebook. Snowden’s documents indicated that GCHQ had built up the capabilities over five years by signing secret agreements with data transmission companies to attach probes to the trans-Atlantic cables where they hit British soil. At the time, it was thought that Tempora gave Britain an edge among the “five eyes” intelligence community of the U.S., Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
After 9/11, the executive branch and intelligence agencies’ capability to collect telecommunications data were greatly expanded. The law already require fiber optics companies to comply with domestic and international surveillance requests, but these Network Security Agreements put enforcers in place to make sure that the requests are honored.