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Does The NSA Tap That? What We Still Don’t Know About The Agency’s Internet Surveillance

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Does The NSA Tap That? What We Still Don’t Know About The Agency’s Internet Surveillance


by Justin Elliott, ProPublica.

Among the snooping revelations of recent weeks, there have been tantalizing bits of evidence that the NSA is tapping fiber-optic cables that carry nearly all international phone and Internet data.

The idea that the NSA is sweeping up vast data streams via cables and other infrastructure — often described as the “backbone of the Internet” — is not new. In late 2005, the New York Times first described the tapping, which began after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. More details emerged in early 2006 when an AT&T whistleblower came forward.

But like other aspects of NSA surveillance, virtually everything about this kind of NSA surveillance is highly secret and we’re left with far from a full picture.

Is the NSA really sucking up everything?

It’s not clear.

The most detailed, though now dated, information on the topic comes from Mark Klein. He’s the former AT&T technician who went public in 2006 describing the installation in 2002-03 of a secret room in an AT&T building in San Francisco. The equipment, detailed in technical documents, allowed the NSA to conduct what Klein described as “vacuum-cleaner surveillance of all the data crossing the internet — whether that be peoples’ email, web surfing or any other data.”

Klein said he was told there was similar equipment installed at AT&T facilities in San Diego, Seattle, and San Jose.

There is also evidence that the vacuuming has continued in some form right up to the present.

A draft NSA inspector’s general report from 2009, recently published by the Washington Post, refers to access via two companies “to large volumes of foreign-to-foreign communications transiting the United States through fiberoptic cables, gateway switches, and data networks.”

Recent stories by the Associated Press and the Washington Post also described the NSA’s cable-tapping, but neither included details on the scope of this surveillance.

A recently published NSA slide, dated April 2013, refers to so-called “Upstream” “collection” of “communications on fiber cables and infrastructure as data flows past.”

These cables carry vast quantities of information, including 99 percent of international phone and Internet data, according to telecom consulting firm TeleGeography.

This upstream surveillance is in contrast to another method of NSA snooping, PRISM, in which the NSA isn’t tapping anything. Instead, the agency gets users’ data with the cooperation of tech companies like Facebook and Google.

Other documents leaked by Edward Snowden to the Guardian provide much more detail about the upstream surveillance by the British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the NSA’s U.K. counterpart.

GCHQ taps cables where they land in the United Kingdom carrying Internet and, phone data. According to the Guardian, unnamed companies serve as “intercept partners” in the effort.

The NSA is listening in on those taps too. By May 2012, 250 NSA analysts along with 300 GCHQ analysts were sifting through the data from the British taps.

Is purely domestic communication being swept up in the NSA’s upstream surveillance?

It’s not at all clear.

Going back to the revelations of former AT&T technician Mark Klein — which, again, date back a decade — a detailed expert analysis concluded that the secret NSA equipment installed at an AT&T building was capable of collecting information “not only for communications to overseas locations, but for purely domestic communications as well.”

On the other hand, the 2009 NSA inspector general report refers specifically to collecting “foreign-to-foreign communications” that are “transiting the United States through fiber-optic cables, gateway switches, and data networks”

But even if the NSA is tapping only international fiber optic cables, it could still pick up communications between Americans in the U.S.

That’s because data flowing over the Internet does not always take the most efficient geographic route to its destination.

Instead, says Tim Stronge of TeleGeography, data takes “the least congested route that is available to their providers.”

“If you’re sending an email from New York to Washington, it could go over international links,” Stronge says, “but it’s pretty unlikely.”

That’s because the United States has a robust domestic network. (That’s not true for some other areas of the world, which can have their in-country Internet traffic routed through another country’s more robust network.)

But there are other scenarios under which Americans’ purely domestic communication might pass over the international cables. Google, for example, maintains a network of data centers around the world.

Google spokeswoman Nadja Blagojevic told ProPublica that, “Rather than storing each user’s data on a single machine or set of machines, we distribute all data — including our own — across many computers in different locations.”

We asked Blagojevic whether Google stores copies of Americans’ data abroad, for example users’ Gmail accounts.  She declined to answer.


  1. Dominick Vila July 23, 2013

    Impressive pictures of Fort Meade are not going to hide the fact that the real threat to our security is not the ability of the NSA to implement effective counter-terrorism surveillance in the USA, but the limitations that allow cyber espionage by foreign super powers to undermine our security and steal some of our most sensitive and valuable technology, capabilities, and processes.

  2. stcroixcarp July 23, 2013

    Why does the NSA need to spend a dime on spying on the American people? Google has already done it for them. People voluntarily give up the most intimate (and boring) details of their lives to Facebook. I am very concerned about NSA spying, but I am alarmed at the spying done by private corporations. Amazon knows more about you than your own mother!

    1. Dominick Vila July 23, 2013

      The NSA is not spying on the American people, the NSA is keeping tabs on who we call and who we get calls from, and the length of those calls, without monitoring the calls. The reason is obvious and it starts with what happened on 9/11/01. What they are doing has nothing to do with fear or deliberate attempts to ignore our constitutional rights, the rationale for the Patriot Act is to improve our intelligence capabilities to ensure the probability of another 9/11 is as miniscule as possible. Bear in mind that monitoring billions of telephone calls, texts, and e-mails a day is a virtual impossibility considering our technological capabilities.
      Instead of demonizing our security agencies we should support them and encourage them to do everything they can to protect our national security and our interests. Neither terrorism nor cyber espionage are a figment of our imagination. They are real and the goal of those engaged in that practice is not to protect and help the American people.

      1. Germansmith July 23, 2013


        Did you feel the same way when Bush was President? Do you really believe NSA changes their ways between an “EVIL” Republican administration and a “holly and good” Democratic one?

        9/11 is nothing…We Americans kill each other thru gang violence many times more than all the people that perished at 9/11.

        What would you say when an overzealous bureaucrat decides to justify the use the surveillance capabilities to put a crimp on all sort of domestic crime? What if future administrations decides that abortion or pornography, or marital infidelity or just to have a critical opinion of the government is a CRIME (it happened in other countries, why not here, we are not any smarter)

        You obviously have very spotty memory about the CIA excesses of the previous decades. The NSA is no better since absolute power corrupts absolutely. There should always be a REAL and OPEN judicial oversight of any violation of privacy to US or foreign citizens

        that is why our founding fathers created 3 branches of government to check on each other.

        1. Dominick Vila July 23, 2013

          The Patriot Act, Bush’s support for immigration reform, and his decision to donate money to fight disease in Africa are among a handful of things he did that I support. I wish the Patriot Act was not necessary and we could all live in harmony, but that is simply not the case.
          9/11 may mean nothing to you, it does to me, and regardless of how much I dislike intrusion, I am willing to give up some freedoms to ensure my family, friends, neighbors, my community and my country are safe.

          1. Germansmith July 23, 2013

            I disagree. maybe because I lived in a country where gradually , with the excuse to protect us from the “evil yanquis” out to destroy our society ALL our freedoms were stripped from us to the point you could do nothing about it.
            As my favorite founding father said:
            “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

          2. Dominick Vila July 23, 2013

            I lived in Venezuela from 1946 to 1958 when General Perez Jimenez was in office, and in Spain in 1945 and again from 1958 to 1969 when Generalissimo Franco was the Caudillo. I am fairly familiar with the dangers and consequences of dictatorships. Fortunately, and regardless of what some people want us to believe, our form of government, regardless of who is in office, is anything but a dictatorship.
            Infringing on some freedoms to minimize the probability of terrorist attacks against our country, is not the same as taking away freedoms, abusing and terrorizing the population of a country to stay in power indefinitely.

  3. Lovefacts July 23, 2013

    The problem is the quantity and indiscriminate nature of the data gathered. The NSA has neither the personnel nor the computers necessary to process all the information they collect on a daily basis. They remind me of those hoarders on TV. While there may be gems within the garbage, important information is lost due to volume and the inability to analyze intelligence in a timely manner –ferret it out what’s important prior to an incident.

    But then, this overreach of the government is typical of the current Republican Party, which passed the Patriot Act, weakening our civil liberties. That’s the thing, Republicans talk almost exclusively about the Second Amendment and their followers tend to get so worked up over their right to own weapons they forget there are ten amendments in the Bill of Rights. You know the ones: separation of church and state,
    freedom of speech, right of habeas corpus to name a few.

    IMO, the biggest difference between Clinton and George W is: Clinton couldn’t keep his zipper closed and “W” and pals couldn’t keep their hands off our freedom. Remember, “W’s” the president who said there’s nothing wrong with a dictatorship as long as he’s the dictator.

    1. elw July 23, 2013

      Loved the last paragraph.

  4. elw July 23, 2013

    I stopped reading the article about 200 words in, I have had enough of the “this will scare you to death” commentaries based on imaginary “what if” scenarios. Yes there is probably a lot we do not know about what the people in power are doing. Not all of them are good guys, some have twisted values, but some do work hard for the people they represent. The crazies in this Country have made big deals of enough non-scandals to make me very cynical about anyone’s claims of wrong doing. Bring me proof and the facts, let me make up my own mind. I will be first on the band wagon when someone has solid proof that honest, hard working people are being targeted and hurt by what the NSA is doing. One more thing, if you want your words to be private do not use the Internet, talk on the phone, or write anything down and get yourself a “dome of silence.” Governments have been spying on each other and their citizens since time began. As for me, I will save my time and energy to worry about real problems and to do something about them.


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