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NSA Tapping Underwater Fiber Optics 186

An anonymous reader submitted an interesting story about the NSA splicing fiber optics under water in order to eavesdrop on digital traffic. This happened years ago, so who knows what they're doing today. Not surprisingly, apparently actually getting the tap is relatively easy. Sifting through the zillions of bits and finding something useful is a little trickier.
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NSA Tapping Underwater Fiber Optics

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  • by Anonymous Coward
    Maybe NSA had something to do with this previous slashdot story [] about an optical fibres cable linking Europe, Asia and Australia, which was damaged on the ocean floor near Singapore.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    Are you aware that one meter is about 1.1 yards? Surely, not even you gringos who are stuck to mediaeval units would commit such a gross error.

    A fiber optic cable is, at most, 40 mm thick, which means, in those brain-dead units "people" in the USA use, 1.5 inches.

  • by Anonymous Coward
    Or they can do what they did and have a law passed which force the telcos to install equipment which allows them to grab whatever information they want right from the switch. National security, you know.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday May 23, 2001 @09:38PM (#202066)
    All one would have to crack into would be the repeater amplifiers that are placed probably every 160km in the cable. A college EE grad could design a sniffer that wouldn't incur a voltage drop or induce noise in the amplifiers. Done this way, the actual fiber strands wouldn't even be touched. It's anybody's guess how they get the resulting data out, but it's probably by wireless transmission, perhaps with a small subsurface bouy and a Naval patrol assignment.
  • by mosch ( 204 ) on Wednesday May 23, 2001 @05:56PM (#202067) Homepage
    Dear lord, it sounds to me like the NSA is some sort of spy agency! Does the United States government know about this?

    "Don't trolls get tired?"
  • by Wyatt Earp ( 1029 ) on Wednesday May 23, 2001 @06:40PM (#202068)
    The US Navy is still doing this. At the end of Blind Man's Bluff - upstairs somewhere, the author talks about the fact that a couple (2-3) Navy subs that have been specially modified with diving chambers keep getting Presidental Unit Citations for classified missions, every year. Since the Subs that first tapped these lines were specially modified and got PUCs for classified missions...the author suspects it's still going on.

    I think the Navy also did it in the Barrets Sea to the north of Murmansk as well.

    It's really interesting how the Navy thought to tap into cable. A Navy Officer remebered boating with his dad on the Mississippi and seeing signs that marked cable runs under water, so he talked head of Naval Operations into sending subs in to see if the Russians had the same sort of signs. They did and the rest is history.
  • Carefully remove the shield on the optical fibre and put a light detecting device to read the traffic.

    The very thing that makes fiber work (Total Internal Reflection (Refraction? I can never keep it straight)) prevents you from doing this. In order to see the light you must make some of it escape by bending the fiber such that some of the light escapes but not all of it, or else the remote end will detect the loss of signal.

    Even with the fiber bent the remote end will see some loss of signal but should compensate without problem. Now if I were the NSA I'd make sure I could get away with very little bending so that hardly any loss would be detected, and simply rely on my advanced hardware to boost a very weak signal.

  • Wrong!

    Yes there are isolators in the system but at each EDFA repeater there is a small internal tap that takes a signal from the eastward fibre and sends it back to base along the westward fibre.
    This lets the cable operators diagnose cable fault positions very accurately.

  • You don't get 'average' telco companies in the undersea cable business. Submarine systems are the hardest game in this business and there are only about half a dozen companies that do this. Each transoceanic cable is something like a 10 figure contract.

    And no, they don't use std OTDR, but the idea is the same. At each repeater (remember they are all optical nowadays) there is a tap from the 'eastward' fibre that sends a signal back along the 'westward' fibre of the pair. (And vice-versa) This lets the cable operators know exactly where any break/bend or power drop occurred, in real time.
    In fact the terrestrial companies (like Terraworx) are starting to use this technology on land because they go coast-to-coast all optically and some of those repeater huts are hard to reach in winter. Hence a remote diagnosis tool is necessary.
  • >So the pulses spread out as they travel, and eventually you have to put in a repeater that extracts the digital data and outputs it as nicely shaped pulses again.

    Old tech. They used to do hybrid stuff like this, several optical amp stages and then a regen stage but not any more. There is no electrical stage in a modern undersea cable. They use non-zero dispersion compensating fibre in certain stretches of the system. Typically 4 repeater hops of std fibre then one of the nzd fibre which has the _opposite_ effect and corrects it all. End effect is that at landfall the signals have minimal dispersion.

  • Present deployed undersea cables are pushing into the terrabits, you can't easily transmit more than 40Gb/s in one wavelength. Hence they do use DWDM tech for these cables.
    One of the latest [] transatlantic cables that went down had 64 channels at 10Gig per channel. Future cables will (roughly) double the number of channels to 100ish and double the data rate per channel. After that the plans are to polarization combine two signals at the same wavelength, one signal horizontally polarized the other vertically polarized.
    In this whole area the commercially deployed systems are catching up with lab tech at an alarming rate. The 'field' is now only about 2 years behind the 'lab'.
  • The US was doing this thing years and years ago to the Soviet Union. We snuck into harbors off of Siberia and put pods on their underwater cables to gather intelligence.

    So what is the big surprise?
  • The signal in optical fiber is amplitude modulated. Which means this is a signal easy to tap.
    For amplitude modulated signal in general (the least secure of them all) the only way you can notice if you are being taped is if the amplitude of the signal suddenly drops.
    This is how, by the way German army dumped a lot of desinformation on Red army through their phone cables in the fields at the beginning of the Warld War II. You see, Sovied Union did not have good quality quartz crystals that time so the Red army tryed to tap german phone lines with the most primitive headphones (you know, based on coil and metal membrane) which consumed noticable amount of power. So as soon as Germans would notice that power in the line droped they'd start some lame conversation with pretty bad consequences for Soviet troops.(mind you, the situation changed by the middle of the WWII).
    Now to tap long haul optical line is not big deal because the optical signal is regenerated anyway. You have to do it for many reasons. Amplitude dops due to propagation. About 30 dB per 100 km. You also need to do the correction of the signal that being distorted by dispersion.
    If you regenerate signal with repeater then there you go. Because this thing first converts optical signal to electrical then amplifies it and converts back to optical. So in this case you can just tap electrical part.
    If signal is being regenerated with EDFA (erbium doped fiber amplyfier) you still can tap it.
    It is actually pretty cool idea and was proposed by the guy (as far as i remember) from BT about ten years ago. He and coworkers published about three papers on that subject in various journals including IEEE Journal of Quantum Electronics.
    What you can do is insert semiconductor optical amplifier in the optical link. It's primary purpose would be to amplify the optical signal. If you really want to hide your presence you need to put it in zero loss regime when amount of the gain in it is equal to the amount of the loss it brings to the system. If you keep this semiconductor optical amplyfier at constant current then voltage drop acros it will be variable if any optical signal comes throug it. So basically you will get electrical signal as a byproduct.
    The rest is easy. Everybody knows what SONET frame looks like :) . And pattern is pretty predictable. That is if you know where you put your tap. You will know how the header of the frame should look like.
    It is interesting that when it is was proposed this idea was discarded because semiconductor optical amplifiers were not that fast at all. Nowdays they can be used for 10 Gb/s optical links but not for 40 Gb/s which is not big deal yet because 40 Gb/s is not that widely implemented.
  • Yes this is tricky part. You can probably do it only during upgrade/repare serivice. Because underwater fiber cable is actually pertty complex thing.
    I don't know how modern cables look like but ther first cables that were put in 80's had cooper core and cooper shell with bunch of fibers in between (don't remember how many). Cooper shell and core were used to deliver power to the repeaters which during those times where basically photodiode+LED pair. Which was OK that time because fibers were multimode anyway.
  • Actualy neither of both. I just know something about telecom. The only point i was trying to make in pevious post is that. It is possible, _in_principle_) to tap optical link and being unnoticed.
    One fellow many posts above said that OTDR (optical time domain reflectometry) will detect the tap. What OTDR does is spits optical pulses into the optical link and then detects any pulses that come back. And of course using time of the arrival of the relfected pulse you can calculate where reflection happened. I think this can be remidied by puting optical isolator in front of the tap (whatever this tap is). Optical isolators are very common. Every transmitting laser for long distance has it because these lasers are sensitive to the back reflection.
    Now the questioin is what are you going to do with the signal theat you read from the optical link.
    The signal in optical cables is not just some kind of stream of bits. The protocol for physical layer is SONET. The minimal unit of this protocol is SONET frame. if you draw on a piece of paper the rectangle 9 squares high and 90 squres long this will be common representation for SONET frame. Each square is one byte. First four coulomns of this matrix (if i remember correctly) will be header which tells what kind of information this packet carries plus some other datails. Then there will be two or three coulomns gap (empty) the rest of the coulomns will be so called payload (actual infromation). So technically speaking you can distinguish SONET frames from each other. For this specific task you don't need supercomputer. Conventional highspeed digital electronics will do fine. But how are you going analyze payload that's different question. And I don't know the answer. I gues to have one or two Crays for a start would be nice. :)
  • It seems like the NSA is drowning in data - instead of encryption making their life tough, it seems like the crude steganoraphy of the data flood perpetrated by great unwashed using Napster and downloading porn is enough to overload their supercomputers . . .

    Now, I suppose, we *really* know why governments around the world want to eradicate music-swapping and "indecent" Internet imagery - they can't monitor what we're really up to through all the noise :)

    Of course, you can take anything said in public about intelligence activities with several grains of salt. If the NSA *can* successfully and selectively monitor undersea cable traffic, they're not going to be so silly as to broadcast that fact to the world.

    Go you big red fire engine!

  • True, however as semicondouctors and optics increase in abilities to push out data, the spy gears abilities increase as well.

    I think over the last decade, and prehaps for another decade or so, the rate of data increase is greater then the rate that spy gear abilities increase. But eventualy, bandwidth requirements will increase in parallel with population. And when that happens, Moors law will quickly allow spy tech to catch up.

  • A modern fiber optic cable is probably using Erbium doped fiber amplifiers. These do not convert the light back into electrical signals. They directly amplify the light.
  • by Detritus ( 11846 ) on Wednesday May 23, 2001 @07:24PM (#202081) Homepage
    Assume that everyone uses PGP for their email, and that it is impractical for the NSA to crack PGP encrypted messages. The NSA will still want to tap every data communications link that they can get access to. The reason is traffic analysis. You can get a lot of useful information by analyzing the source, destination and volume of messages. This is already a common intelligence gathering and criminal investigation technique when applied to call logs from telephone switching systems.
  • This would be Echelon [].

    Funny they didn't mention it in the article. (but then again they rarely do.)

    Read more at [].
  • I know of one project at the local uni to do realtime monitoring of massive quantities of data. The twofold purpose is to monitor the communications of military personel to guard against accidental leaks, and to aid in identifying copyrighted material.

    It more or less comes down to semi-dedicated hardware that can grep at insane speeds. Most of the parts necessary are comercially available (even some GPLed software components), needing just a little bit of glue to tie everything together. The professor heading the project was looking for somebody to help him do the implementation. He described how it works, and claimed that it should be trivially easy. And except for some problems with self-similarity in the data stream (finding "bb gun" in "bbb gun"), it has been. Even so, this problem can be trivially solved by throwing more hardware at it, or by putting just a little bit of effort into the software.

    If an undergraduate research assistant can do a damn good job of it with 3 weeks coding and under $10K in hardware, just think about what the NSA could do. I'd rather put my trust into good crypto, rather than the firehose effect.
  • The reason for the high voltage running through the line is to power repeaters every 100 miles or so. Why not just tap into one of the repeaters, which convert the optical signal into electronic signals and then back again? Sounds pretty easy to me, given the right equipment. As for sorting the data the repeater is able to deal with it as is the router or whatever is on the receiving end so why wouldnt whatever technology the nsa has. The problem would be storage.


  • Any data carrying signal must include a range of wavelengths

    Fiber optics with current technology transmit all the data on a single optical wavelength. The technology to do multiple wavelengths has been in development for a while, but we haven't hit serious barriers with a single wavelength, so this technology hasn't been commercialized.

    And the rate at which a light is pulsed doesn't affect its propogation rate. That would violate all sorts of laws of physics.

    The real reason why you must do the electrical conversion and back is that several sources combine to cause slight variations in the time bits of light take to get from one end of the fiber to the next. Chaos and imperfections in the glass effectively blur the time dimension of the signal at the output end, so you must clean the signal periodically.

    This has nothing to do with the fact that different wavelengths of light travel at different speeds through matter. That causes chromatic aberation in lenses, which is one of the reasons why big telescopes use only mirrors. But since there is on a single color of light going through the fiber, there cannot be any chromatic aberration.
  • by Ron Bennett ( 14590 ) on Wednesday May 23, 2001 @06:25PM (#202086) Homepage
    Word to the wise, encrypt your critical traffic since a good deal of internet communications is vulnerable to being intercepted at NAPs (Network Access Points) as well at other major connection points. Private peering arrangements routed outside of NAP (ie. MAE-East, MAE-West, etc) facilities can reduce risk in some instances, but typically can't eliminate all risk since the majority of internet traffic travels through at least one major NAP; and the exact connections, etc are often unknown to all parties, even to the people who operate the NAP facilities.

    In closing, governments, etc are typically years ahead of the media and common-knowledge in regards to intellegence gathering. NAP tapping is never mentioned in the media, but I'm sure it's happening. Be forewarned :-)

  • I never condoned anything, I simply stated the two jobs of the NSA.

    That said, deriding someone for thinking it okay to invade privacy for their own benefit while criticising socialism is kind of ironic. In a market economy (hint: the opposite of socialism) the only reason to do ANYTHING is for your own benefit. That's the whole point -- if I can tap into a transoceanic cable and make it profitable, the free market says I should be able to.

    You apparently think I should not be able to (presumably by the use of police force or such to stop me?). Communist...

  • by NMerriam ( 15122 ) <> on Wednesday May 23, 2001 @06:28PM (#202088) Homepage
    Isn't it ironic that the NSA stands for the very thing thay, behind our backs and behind the scenes, they attempt, and perhaps succeed, to invade?

    The NSA has two jobs -- one is to breach foreign information security, but their other is to keep US information secure. So it isn't ironic -- they just have to know security from both sides.

  • The "here is that 411 []" message in this thread describes this - the project given away by a Russian double agent related to an inductive tap of an old-fashioned undersea copper cable in the Okhotsk Sea.

    Not even the NSA can tap fiberoptics inductively - laws of physics and all that. They would have to splice it, a much more difficult thing to do at the bottom of the ocean.

    If a fiberoptic tap has really occurred - and as far as I can tell, the evidence is simply from unnamed sources according to ZDNet - it would be a very different animal from the Okhotsk tap. Okhotsk used high-capacity recorders to store the info for later retrieval by submarine. That would have been analog data. You couldn't save enough digital fiberoptic data in a recording pod to make it worthwhile. You'd have to drop a Cray on the seafloor to process some of the data in realtime and save only what you're interested in.

    That's an operation for a l33t hax0r somewhere - hack into the NSA Cray that's sitting on the ocean bed somewhere off the Kamchatka pensinsula...

  • Agents in a telecom company? You've been watching too much Austin Powers.

    All the NSA would have to do would be arrange for a fishing boat to snag the cable they were planning to splice, to explain the interruption.

  • by decowski ( 20290 ) on Wednesday May 23, 2001 @06:02PM (#202091) Journal
    has anyone else wondered how the NSA is shipping the data? wouldn't you need the equivalent of another fibre-optic cable running alongside to transport the data back to virginia?

    considering that laying an optical cable is somewhere O(1e9) $ and not trivial to lay undetected, it must be quite a feat...
  • Because in my MCSE stydy guide, Networking Essentials, it sais that Fiber Optics are impossible to tap.

    So there.

  • Yea, I was sarcastic....

    Oh well.

  • > The only way I can see this happening is if the NSA installed their own undersea
    > fiberoptic cable to send it back to themselves on.

    Of course not!
    They have specially trained teams of hyperintelligent octupi down there analysing the data in real time, then the brain waves of the octupi are picked up using a reverse feedback effect of the orbital mind control lasers, which then beam it back down to your brain, where it leaks out into your mobile phone (even when it's switched off and not in the room) and they recover the signal from there.
    1. How do you sort through all the data? Discard most of it.
    2. How do you get around detection of a tap?
      • Put the tap in before the cable is finished. Or maybe...
      • Use a method no one here knows about Or perhaps...
      • Tap at the repeater & modify the reflection/check signals that it emits. Maybe? Maybe you could...
      • You build the _special_ repeater into the cable during manufacturing.
    3. How do you get all that data to a supercomputer for sorting and decryption? Probably, you don't. You do traffic analysis and you transmit a very small amount of data to a buoy that transmits to your satellite. Or you remove/insert data in your dummy packets that go between NSA machines on several continents. Also, you put the supercomputer on the nuclear submarine so that any time you _really_ need to sort through some data your sub can link up with your special repeater.
    4. For what else might this be useful? How about inserting noise or false data into the "Enemy's" messages?
    5. This sounds like an awful lot of trouble to go through. Yea, but wouldn't it be fun to get paid to hack like this?
  • The use of an OTDR can find irregularities that woudl be cause by splices. If the cable companies do scans routinely for differentials against baseline (for preventative maintenance), the splices by No Such Agency will show up.
  • Just get a fishing boat to rip off a cable. The article implies that this happens quite often. Especially since fiber cables are tiny compared to mammoth old style copper cables.
    That must give the NSA or whoever a couple days to splice the cable at another point. Service goes back online, all looks normal.

    Am I missing something obvious? You don't even need to be discreet. Just provide a decoy.
  • Ten years ago, it took $20,000 worth of a van full of electronics. Now it probably only takes $5,000 and a suitcase. Of course, the problem with the van thing was that most people don't want their fiber optic cables tapped. It's just a thing with them -- a phase they're going through. They'll get over it.
  • According to economic theory, you should be able jack up interest rates, throw millions of people out of work, and within a year the economy will recover, but resume at a much lower inflation rate. As it turns out, Ronnie was right. But try explaining that to the people at the beginning of the recession who lost their jobs.

    Actually, you have no choice once you start inflating your currency. It's recession now or depression later. Look at Turkey. The Turkish Lire is now 1,110,500 to the dollar. It was only 580,000 to the dollar when I was there a year ago. Eventually they'll be hauling lire around in wheelbarrows because they're so worthless.
  • by Azza ( 35304 ) on Wednesday May 23, 2001 @06:25PM (#202100)
    "I'm not going to sit here and dissuade you from your views" - Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden

    "Oh, Kent, I'd be lying if I said my men weren't committing crimes"- Homer J. Simpson
  • by revscat ( 35618 ) on Wednesday May 23, 2001 @05:48PM (#202101) Journal

    It isn't known whether the cable's operator detected the intrusion, though former NSA officials say they believe it went unnoticed.

    When I was a freshman in college and had to take a class on telecommunications we had an engineer from Southwestern Bell come out and explain these new fangled fiber optics. One of the claims he made was that they would be nigh-impossible to tap because the splice could be detected at either end rather easily due to latency issues.

    So my question is this: Anyone have any ideas how the heck they might have done this? Whatever the device was, it seems it'd have to be very, very fast at whatever it does. The only thing I can imagine is some sort of intelligent lens that reads signals while they pass through it.

    Scary, whatever it is.

    - Rev.
  • Errr... wouldn't it just make sense for them to both tap the original cable, because tapping the tap wouldn't give them any more information!

  • The problem (blessing) is there is little chance of the NSA sorting through all the data. According to the article, the first cable laid back in 1988 was carrying 40,000 simultaneous phone calls. A cable planned for this summer are equivalent to 100 million phone calls. At a 56K modem each, that's like 5000 TB of data/second.

    So they're going to build a room to drop to the bottom of the ocean, splice a cable, and then hold a computer cluster to process the data? Unless they are interested in very targetted ip's or other easily sorted packets, it'll be huge and costly. Anything interesting will probably be encrypted anyway, so they have to add a couple orders of magnitude of computer power for that.

    Or maybe they are going to run their own fiber bundle back to dry land? Govornment agencies don't have quite that kind of budget.

    Even if they can get reasonable results right now, Bandwidth usage is growing faster than processing power. They won't be able to keep up for much longer. And then eventually they will be caught, causing all the cable companies to search their entire lines for more taps, pissing off innumerable foreign countries.

    The spy business ain't what it used to be.

  • Signals Intelligence and Ground Electronic Warfare equipment that is set up to do an unmanned monitor generally scans pseudo-randomly, looking for interesting patterns. When something sufficiently interesting happens, the equipment will alert a human operator, who can investigate, and respond as needed (ie. give that pattern/transmission/etc a higher priority to be monitored.)

    However, as traffic grows and grows, they'll only be able to heuristically/pseudorandomly monitor a smaller and smaller portion of the traffic. Theoretically it would grow so small as to become an insignificant ammount.

    Imagine this sort of scheme. All they really need to do is store all the possibly informative traffic and then randomly scan that. This is probably mostly text, which is tiny and relatively easily scanned. Things like live porn and back episodes of southpark can be safely ignored. To do this, they have to search though this fat pipe and check every packet to see whether it contains part of an e-mail. Even better, they should check it's source/destination IPs. With bandwidth growing like it is, they won't even be able to do that. So even if they know Mr. Russia and Mr. China are planning something nasty, they can't even reliably catch all the data transmitted between them. Unless it's important enough to plant bugs right at their house.

    I suppose America just has to hope for few enough terrorists that we can bug them all properly. I of course hope for that already, but Mr. Bush hasn't spent a lot of time making friends lately, and the fear seems to be more towards lots of smaller, disorganized, hard to bug terrorist groups than anything else.

  • Without a reference or something, I'm inclined to believe that you placed your keyboard between you and the toilet in order to create your post.

    I suppose what your suggesting could be true, without some sort of proof, it sounds awfully far-fetched (that, or your stretching the truth or leaving out a lot of important "details").

    To whomever modded this up "Informative", I have one thing to say: "Gullible isn't in the dictionary. Go ahead, try to look it up, it's not there".
  • As others have mentioned you can't dump even one slow 10 Gb/s channel to tape realistically. If it does exist it most likley:

    1. converts to the electrical domain

    2. follows a TDMed stream of SONET frames for a few seconds from a single phone call.

    3. If a certain word is found (through voice recognition) real-time action could be taken or the information could be recorded to tape.

    The point is; sorting for whatever you want basically has to be done on site and in a limited way.

  • Maybe one needs to keep a level of communication going on all channels (lets call this gossiping) and piggyback the message on top of the base gossiping message keeping the message characteristics (source, destination and volume of messages) the same.

    'We begin bombing in five minutes' - R. Reagan
  • Actually slashdot might be a good medium to carry a message on as lots of people read and right to it every day and an extra coded message might be easily missed.

    In the past (Easter rising Ireland 1916 being one case) notices in the small ads of newspapers have been used as a widely distributed medium where an extra coded message might not be intercepted by the enemy.

  • Why would they leave their name on it, if they were worried the russians would find it?

  • Exactly.. The NSA's not stupid enough to get caught. OTDR's aren't cheap either, and it's not like you leave one connected to the line. Although with bidirectional DWDM, I suppose it would be possible. The problem with common OTDR equipment is that it sends out a very strong pulse, and it's not usually a specific narrow wavelength. This would break most DWDM schemes, causing them to flip over onto the protection side of the ring. I don't know about the output isolation of DWDM units either, whether there's enough channel separation to allow an OTDR unit to perceive its own signal coming back among the noise.

    It should be possible to design a dedicated-purpose OTDR that could be left connected to a DWDM unit's spare channel, and periodically scan the line. IANA Optical Engineer, and I don't know whether receivers are sensitive enough to resolve reflected signals with the necessary resolution. (I'm thinking erbium?)

    Assuming that most undersea cable operators have redundant paths and protection switching, they could take a circuit down, OTDR the thing, and bring it back up, but why? There's no profit for them in this. Most SONET receivers, at least the big Nortel ones, will report their received light level in software. That's a good enough indication of impending cable problems, and it doesn't involve poking at an already-fragile circuit.
  • They just have to insert their analysed data on the cable being tapped... It's supposed to be able to transfer truckloads of it.

    That could work. But there would have to be another tap to read it again, and (much harder) remove the added light before it reached the cable's normal destination, where anyone could see it.

    If the NSA had access to the headends of the cable (say if one end was in the USA) it would be a much simpler matter of tapping or monitoring the data before it was multiplexed with a lot of other data and converted into light pulses. Or at worst tapping a land-based fiber by simply entering a manhole or digging down a few feet to the cable.
  • And as you remember, the fibre laid into ocean must also be digged up at about every 80 km, because the equipment used to retransmit the amplified signal is tied to the original speed of that fibre. If I remember correctly, there were news about new technique for amplifying signal speed independent, but I cannot remember where. Maybe Google can...

    Erbium-Doped Fiber Amplifiers (EDFAs) were invented in 1987. Okay, let's check Google... it serves up this [] among other things...

    Corning and AT&T offer new submarine fiber-optic components
    SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The microelectronics unit of AT&T has announced that it will make its next generation ultrahigh reliability undersea lightwave components available to system designers and integrators engaged in fiber-optic cable projects.
    At OFC/IOOC '93, an optical conference here, AT&T Microelectronics displayed its key undersea lightwave products, including an ultrahigh reliability wavelength division multiplex (WDM) coupler for erbium doped fiber amplifier applications codeveloped with Corning Incorporated, and a pump laser module that incorporates the first commercial application of a revolutionary chemically vapor-deposited (CVD) diamond submount.

    "When you place a critical communications device below the ocean you can't afford to take a risk of failure, and no one in the business has a better track record than AT&T," said Mark McGilvray, submarine lightwave product manager
    So they've been in use a while too.
  • This must be expensive, having to upgrade their equipment at the bottom of the ocean whenever a new generation of transmitter/receiver/multiplexer comes out...
  • Besides, I'm sure the tap is "thin" -- it just sees the light and sends a copy back to HQ, where they try to extract actual data in software

    Using what data channel? They would have to winnow the information down to a tiny percentage of what was transmitted at the tap site (or
    install their own undersea cable, which would be too hard to hide for the NSA's taste).
  • They have specially trained teams of hyperintelligent octupi down there analysing the data in real time, then the brain waves of the octupi are picked up using a reverse feedback effect of the orbital mind control lasers, which then beam it back down to your brain, where it leaks out into your mobile phone (even when it's switched off and not in the room) and they recover the signal from there.

    Unfortunately, the entire budget of the program was wasted due to my rentng a house that possesses $39.49 of cheap but aluminum-foil-backed cellulose insulation, which does little to keep heat out or in but blocked the final link in the chain.

    As well as anyone else trying to call me on the cellphone while I'm in the house.

  • by Velox_SwiftFox ( 57902 ) on Wednesday May 23, 2001 @06:16PM (#202116)
    The only way I can see this happening is if the NSA installed their own undersea fiberoptic cable to send it back to themselves on.

    Good thing the Ex-Soviet Union didn't have the tech, apparently, or the NSA would have then found their own monitoring cable tapped, and have to install another tap and cable on the USSR's return cable, which would then be tapped by the Reds, and so on, and so on...

    - "You've got an anti-anti-antimissle missle? Well, we've got an
    anti-anti-anti-antimissle missle!" - Get Smart!
  • Blind Man's Bluff (a book about submarine exploits) has an excellent account of how this was done. If I recall correctly, it was in the North Sea, and we tapped a phone line between one of their naval bases and headquarters. A huge risk on our part, because it was basically illegal (not in international waters). Very difficult in the super cold waters up there.
    So yes, it was not optical back then, but the mission was basically the same. They had to go back every so often and collect the old tapes / put new ones in, and that was the biggest downside. But that does not seem like it would work, since you would need a huge tape to record all that info. They would have needed some way to relay the data more or less in real time. The article never really says that this happened, and I do not believe it did. How would you relay real time data from a fiber optic cable out in the middle of the ocean? These are not a few phone conversations, these are constant, high bandwidth streams.
  • Oopps. I meant Sea of Okhotsk.
    This comment clears that up. []
  • It has been a while since I read that, but let me plug it again, because it was a great book.
    Blind Man's Bluff. If you liked u-571, das boot, red october, this is the real story.
  • by joq ( 63625 ) on Wednesday May 23, 2001 @06:02PM (#202122) Homepage Journal

    The Wall Street Journal [] just ran this something similar.. (haven't checked the zdnet doc lagging on dl's) [mirror []]

    Anyways I doubt its impossible for the NSA to splice it, however when companies take the corrective measures to ensure this won't happen what are they going to do...

    Example, say a company takes the time, and money to protect their fiber say inside inexpensive pvc pipes or something similar, who does the government expect to blame when a company finds out that 100 miles away from any shoreline, their casing has been breached? Certainly its not Joe Fisherman doing this.

    Anyways aside from that nothing is going to help them when that fiber line is carrying IPSec data all the way through the connections, along with messages that have been encrypted before even being sent. So many people have little to worry about.

    For those interested in Crypto Equipment and such (especially those working in the ISP segments) you can check out the Crypto Equipment Guide []. Hopefully many companies will start looking at their clients (whether their employees, subscribers, etc.) more serious. I know Earthlink is taking that approach.

  • by joq ( 63625 ) on Wednesday May 23, 2001 @11:04PM (#202123) Homepage Journal

    Submarine cable interception

    Submarine cables now play a dominant role in international telecommunications, since - in contrast to the limited bandwidth available for space systems - optical media offer seemingly unlimited capacity. Save where cables terminate in countries where telecommunications operators provide Comint access (such as the UK and the US), submarine cables appear intrinsically secure because of the nature of the ocean environment. 49. In October 1971, this security was shown not to exist. A US submarine, Halibut, visited the Sea of Okhotsk off the eastern USSR and recorded communications passing on a military cable to the Khamchatka Peninsula Halibut was equipped with a deep diving chamber, fully in view on the submarine's stern. The chamber was described by the US Navy as a "deep submergence rescue vehicle". The truth was that the "rescue vehicle" was welded immovably to the submarine. Once submerged, deep-sea divers exited the submarine and wrapped tapping coils around the cable. Having proven the principle, USS Halibut returned in 1972 and laid a high capacity recording pod next to the cable. The technique involved no physical damage and was unlikely to have been readily detectable.

    The Okhotsk cable tapping operation continued for ten years, involving routine trips by three different specially equipped submarines to collect old pods and lay new ones; sometimes, more than one pod at a time. New targets were added in 1979. That summer, a newly converted submarine called USS Parche travelled from San Francisco under the North Pole to the Barents Sea, and laid a new cable tap near Murmansk. Its crew received a presidential citation for their achievement. The Okhotsk cable tap ended in 1982, after its location was compromised by a former NSA employee who sold information about the tap, codenamed IVY BELLS, to the Soviet Union. One of the IVY BELLS pods is now on display in the Moscow museum of the former KGB. The cable tap in the Barents Sea continued in operation, undetected, until tapping stopped in 1992.

    During 1985, cable-tapping operations were extended into the Mediterranean, to intercept cables linking Europe to West Africa. (30) After the cold war ended, the USS Parche was refitted with an extended section to accommodate larger cable tapping equipment and pods. Cable taps could be laid by remote control, using drones. USS Parche continues in operation to the present day, but the precise targets of its missions remain unknown. The Clinton administration evidently places high value on its achievements, Every year from 1994 to 1997, the submarine crew has been highly commended.(31) Likely targets may include the Middle East, Mediterranean, eastern Asia, and South America. The United States is the only naval power known to have deployed deep-sea technology for this purpose.

    Miniaturised inductive taps recorders have also been used to intercept underground cables.(32) Optical fibre cables, however, do not leak radio frequency signals and cannot be tapped using inductive loops. NSA and other Comint agencies have spent a great deal of money on research into tapping optical fibres, reportedly with little success. But long distance optical fibre cables are not invulnerable. The key means of access is by tampering with optoelectronic "repeaters" which boost signal levels over long distances. It follows that any submarine cable system using submerged optoelectronic repeaters cannot be considered secure from interception and communications intelligence activity.
  • Errr... wouldn't it just make sense for them to both tap the original cable, because tapping the tap wouldn't give them any more information!

    That would be way too straightforward, and would not use up enough tax dollars.

  • The folks and FermiLab and CERN regularly have hardware filter 7 Terabytes per second down to "reasonable" data levels. It's mostly done in hardware. I would think it would be fairly easy to filter out half of the traffic (MP3 files, etc), and use a similar fiber to transport all or a filtered portion of the data streams back to friendly territory.

    I would be VERY surprised if they don't also have less secret hardware in place on the US ends of these links.


  • Tapping the tap lets you know what information the original tappers were interested in and what information you transmitted wasn't compromised by the original tap.

    Tapping the tap on the tap does the same thing, ad infinitum.


  • ...don't you think?

    Really? Isn't it ironic that the NSA stands for the very thing thay, behind our backs and behind the scenes, they attempt, and perhaps succeed, to invade? (Hint: What's the S in NSA stand for?)

    A little too ironic... And yeah I really do think.

  • So you're one of those people that condones such invasion of privacy, so long as it is for your benefit. You know, there's an entire political party dedicated to that sort of thing. In America, they call themselves Democrats, though they are certainly not the Democratic Party that I have read about in my history books. Oh no, their ideals are far from their origins, so much so that they resemble the Communist or Socialist Parties of Europe and Asia far more than the Democratic ideals for which the party was initially founded.
  • Sorry to burst your bubble, but the Constitution provides no right to privacy to anyone, just as it does not provide anyone with the right to be heard. The right to free speech is very often confused for the right to be heard. We feel that, because we can say what we want, it must be heard by the audience at which we aimed our speech. When will everyone realize that, just as we [supposedly] have the right to choose what we say and how we say it, we also have the right to choose what we hear and how we hear it.

    One should also consider the Ninth Amendment, or, as I call it, the "elastic clause for the people". It essentially guarantees certain rights beyond those specifically named in the Constitution to protect the people from intrusion and tyranny. While these rights may not simply be assumed, they are protected, and the prevailing code of morality generally decides which rights are protected and which rights are not.

    While I am at it, perhaps we should take a peak at the Eighth Amendment as well, which provides that no one shall be subject to cruel or unusual punishment for a crime. Take, for instance, the high school honors graduate that was arrested and will not graduate with her class simply because she had a butter knife in her vehicle at school. Not a butcher's knife. Not a steak knife. A butter knife. She has never shown any violent tendencies, nor has anyone ever reached into a random vehicle for an ordinary household object to threaten the safety of other students. Is it just me, or is "Zero Tolerance" inciting brainless reaction to nothing? Way to go, America.

  • "...unfair interference in the lives of the citizens. Thus, we have a reasonable expectation to privacy even if it is not spelled out for you in plain English. You aren't bursting my bubble, the government (not to mention Big Money) is bursting ours by it's tiresome meddling..."

    Expectation is the leading cause of disappointment. And Big Money?! Why don't you spell that out for me? I would like to hear your argument about Big Money. (And then I will likely laugh at it.) Part of my point is that our rights can not simply be assumed because we expect them or think we deserve them, or because we think our government is going too far. When we have done the time in the books and know how to run a country, we can become politicians and try to make those changes. The entire world is politics; everyone should be a politician.

    "...I believe most aware people want the government to get off our ass. Hell they already take 25% of our paychecks (or more).

    *cough* Um, that's most unaware people. All they want is what the news and politicians tell them they want. They don't in any way reason what the purpose for those things are, they just want to make things temporarily better for themselves. Here's a good quote, and I'll give you a quarter if you can find its source: "A republic will collapse when the dumb masses realize they can vote for goodies for themselves." (Sounds like the Democratic agenda to me...)

    "Lastly, the example of the girl with butter knife doesn't really have anything to do with cruel and unusual punishment, since no crime was committed in the first place..."

    I would like to know how being arrested and forced to miss your graduation is not cruel or unusual punishment for simply owning a butter knife and having it lie silently in your car.

    To make another point, I've taken tire irons, car jacks, wrenches, hammers, and many other tools that don't leave my car that I would use as a weapon long before a butter knife, and I have never heard any hint of trouble. In fact, no one in the country has had a problem with those items. I have also taken butter knives and even sharp cutting knives inside my school on days that we have prepared food for our classmates. I know that my school is anal about a lot of things, but at least they think, if only a little, before coming to conclusions about what a student possesses.

  • Hell they already take 25% of our paychecks (or more).

    First of all, the government largely controls (indirectly most of the time) the salaries and wages that people earn. They are not taking any money that you need. Second, because of that, the 75% of your paycheck that you get to keep is exactly what they intended you to keep, and those of us that are aware of how our nation and economy operates don't complain, because we know that it's all part of a necessary system. Third, they're not taking 25%. Maybe 25% of your paycheck.

    Without these taxes, our country would simply collapse. It's on the way to doing that anyway, since people are too busy capitalizing on what isn't rightfully theirs, engineering their government to deliver the goods whether they have earned them or not. Way to go, America.

    • An anonymous reader submitted an interesting story about the NSA splicing fiber optics under water in order to eavesdrop on digital traffic
    Anonymous, eh? Anyone got any conspiracy theories? :)
  • When I read stories about things like this, with agencies like NSA monitoring everything I send for keywords, it makes me want to say:

    Waihopai, INFOSEC, Information Security, Information Warfare, IW, IS, Priavacy, Information Terrorism, Terrorism Defensive Information, Defense Information Warfare, Offensive Information, Offensive Information Warfare, National Information Infrastructure, InfoSec, Reno, Compsec, Computer Terrorism, Firewalls, Secure Internet Connections, ISS, Passwords, DefCon V, Hackers, Encryption, Espionage, White House, Undercover, NCCS, Mayfly, PGP, PEM, RSA, Perl-RSA, MSNBC, bet, AOL, AOL TOS, CIS, CBOT, AIMSX, STARLAN, 3B2, BITNET, COSMOS, DATTA, E911, FCIC, HTCIA, IACIS, UT/RUS, JANET, JICC, ReMOB, LEETAC, UTU, VNET, BRLO, BZ, CANSLO, CBNRC, CIDA, JAVA, Active X, Compsec 97, LLC, DERA, Mavricks, Meta-hackers, ^?, Steve Case, Tools, Telex, Military Intelligence, Scully, Flame, Infowar, Bubba, Freeh, Archives, Sundevil, jack, Investigation, ISACA, NCSA, spook words, Verisign, Secure, ASIO, Lebed, ICE, NRO, Lexis-Nexis, NSCT, SCIF, FLiR, Lacrosse, Flashbangs, Masuda, Forte, AT, GIGN, Exon Shell, CQB, CONUS, CTU, RCMP, GRU, SASR, GSG-9, 22nd SAS, GEOS, EADA, BBE, STEP, Echelon, Dictionary, MD2, MD4, MDA, MYK, 747,777, 767, MI5, 737, MI6, 757, Kh-11, Shayet-13, SADMS, Spetznaz, Recce, 707, CIO, NOCS, Halcon, Duress, RAID, Psyops, grom, D-11, SERT, VIP, ARC, S.E.T. Team, MP5k, DREC, DEVGRP, DF, DSD, FDM, GRU, LRTS, SIGDEV, NACSI, PSAC, PTT, RFI, SIGDASYS, TDM. SUKLO, SUSLO, TELINT, TEXTA. ELF, LF, MF, VHF, UHF, SHF, SASP, WANK, Colonel, domestic disruption, smuggle, 15kg, nitrate, Pretoria, M-14, enigma, Bletchley Park, Clandestine, nkvd, argus, afsatcom, CQB, NVD, Counter Terrorism Security, Rapid Reaction, Corporate Security, Police, sniper, PPS, ASIS, ASLET, TSCM.

  • by Ray Yang ( 135542 ) <RayAYang@gma[ ]com ['il.' in gap]> on Wednesday May 23, 2001 @06:45PM (#202157)
    There were two taps: one in the Okhotsk Sea (in the Pacific), and one in the Barents Sea (north of Scandinavia). The traitor only gave away the Okhotsk Sea tap.

    (source, for those who are interested, is Blind Man's Bluff by Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew, a truly excellent book about undersea espionage during the Cold War).

  • and found that it was all pr0n. []
  • The folks and FermiLab and CERN regularly have hardware filter 7 Terabytes per second down to "reasonable" data levels. It's mostly done in hardware. I would think it would be fairly easy to filter out half of the traffic (MP3 files, etc), and use a similar fiber to transport all or a filtered portion of the data streams back to friendly territory.

    yes, but have you ever seen the amount of equipment needed to do this? At FermiLab, the first stage of data processing is done in the detector circuitry, and occupies a good chunk of the detector's volume (a three story high by 50 meter long piece of equipment, I should mention). Then, an entire floor of a good sized building is filled with racks of mostly custom-built circuitry processes the output of the first stage filters for interesting events.

    It's even worse at CERN. They're currently putting up a new building that will be entirely filled with computing hardware to manage the data produced by the experiments when LHC comes online.

    Anyway, sure, it's possible to filter that sort of data stream. But could you do it on the seabed? No. I'm not even convinced the NSA could afford many such installations. The price tag for the current incarnation of CDF (one of the primary detectors at FermiLab): around $700 million. And that's using cheap grad student labor to build a good chunk of it.

  • Thats why NASA landed that Mars probe so well...
  • I recently watched a program about the NSA on a cable television station (I don't recall if it was History Channel, Discovery Channel, or TLC). The only NSA computer photos shown were some Cray and SGI Origin PR photos in what looked to be a small machine room. It was mentioned that the NSA currently has 11 acres of supercomputers and disk storage. Another comment suggested that they used up "10 years worth of storage" in only a few months after the datawarehouse was built.

    Now I see how Cray turned a profit this past quarter and why EMC^2 is doing so well!
  • by WolfWithoutAClause ( 162946 ) on Wednesday May 23, 2001 @06:10PM (#202168) Homepage
    Not. Actually its fairly trivial to tap a fiber.

    The basic technique once you've dried it off is to remove the cladding on one side and then bend the fiber slightly and place a detector on the outside.

    The bend lets a tiny bit of light out, enough to detect, but not enough (hopefully) to tip off the telecoms engineers.

    However doing this does produce a tiny echo on the fiber and it is theoretically possible for the cable operator to find the tap using timed reflectrometry equipment.
  • by Alien54 ( 180860 ) on Wednesday May 23, 2001 @06:23PM (#202175) Journal
    We snuck into harbors off of Siberia and put pods on their underwater cables to gather intelligence.

    just be be precise, this was done inthe Artic ocean.

    NOVA had a show (Submarines, Secrets, and Spies []) on it back in Jabuary 1999. See the transcript here []

    Maybe things have changed, but according to the special it was maybe halfway there when something went wrong:

    It was the highest priority and the biggest budget item in the intelligence budget in the late Reagan administration. They spent about a billion dollars on it, and then it all went away, because of one guy, Pelton.

    NARRATOR: Ronald Pelton was analyst working for the National Security Agency who was convicted of spying for the KGB. The on-line tap was one of the operations he compromised.

    So this looks like old news, and it might not even be accurate.

    Check out the Vinny the Vampire [] comic strip

  • by Alien54 ( 180860 ) on Wednesday May 23, 2001 @06:30PM (#202176) Journal
    Looks like the old effort had to do with Electro- Magnetic cables, phone lines, etc when it was during the Regan era.

    But the modern effort has to do with fiber.

    Aside with sheer volume of data, they also have this issue:

    Dust or seawater in the submerged chamber could ruin an exposed fiber. Making a surreptitious tap of a live cable would also require circumventing the electrical charge--usually around 10,000 volts--which is used to power the devices that keep the speeding light beams strong.

    This is know a "technical difficulties"

    Check out the Vinny the Vampire [] comic strip

  • Er... it seems to me if it were that easy for them to insert agents as engineers, they could avoid the whole complicated snarfing about in a cold, dark, hostile environment hundreds of meters beneath the surface of the ocean to place the tap. They'd just grab it at one of the ends. The very existence of the NSA puts a hole in your theory.

    Or you could just be trolling... wasn't it Arthur C. Clarke who once said that any sufficiently well-constructed troll would be virtually indistinguishable from routine stupidity?

  • If it were so easy to do long term covert taps right at the telco, then why is the NSA actually investing billions of dollars in equipment to do undersea taps?

    You dumbass, that's my argument. Glad to see that you're not a troll, though... I get along much better with just plain idiots.

    For that matter, the Russian embassy tunnel tends to prove my point too. Thanks. They dug that because... wait for it... because they couldn't reliably insert human agents to gather the information more directly! You're arguing in circles. You can't say "Oh, they'd just put an agent in to cover for themselves during the tap," and then turn around and argue about how difficult it is to put an agent in and expect anybody to listen to you. My entire point is that it's not that easy to put a covert agent in. The US intelligence establishment has leaned away from HUMINT and toward SIGINT and high-altitude imaging for years because of that. When you are lucky enough to actually get an agent (and most of them aren't actually US citizens--too difficult to create believable cover) it's very rare to be able to target them into a more favorable position. It's pot-luck; you get what they happen to have access to, not what you would like them to have access to.

    Try doing your research by doing something other than watching old Bond flicks sometime.
  • For someone who supposedly knows how to read, you did an awesome job of completely skipping over my entire second paragraph, which addresses your rather pathetic premise directly. It's been fun toying with you, though. Try again after you're out of junior high and then maybe we can have a real conversation.

  • I've read Blind Man's Bluff, and while it's quite informative and enjoyable -- there is a particularly chilling account of a barely-averted meltdown on board a nuclear-powered submarine -- my recollection of the incident it recounts does not sound like the same one described in this article. The cable tapped in Blind Man's Bluff was, I believe, a regular old copper cable that provided a dedicated phone connection betewen two Soviet military facilities. It ran across the Black Sea, or something like that. The thing that made me laugh was how they figured out WHERE the cable ran across the bottom -- basically they tooled around the shore of the sea and looked for a sign that said the Russian equivalent of "underwater cable, no mooring here."

    Seriously, though, this is a great book: Like a non-fiction version of some of the early Clancy stories such as The Hunt for Red October. Fun stuff.

  • Perfect source of material for Echelon, not Carnivore. Carnivore belongs to the FBI.

    With that being said, if they're really tapping underwater transmissions, here are some words that should trip Echelon:

  • You're MCSE text book might say that, I know its something we used to be taught, however computer security courses teach that it can be done. You strip the coating, and place the exposed fibre in a special reader unit that bends the fibre just enough so some the light escapes due to it hitting the glass close enough to the perpendicular that it refracts rather than reflects, you then have a sensor that reads the light escaping. Its almost as easy as tapping an ethernet line, its just the reader is a little more expensive. It is possible to detect the tap as there is a slight loss in signal quality at the reciever but you have to have very sensitive equipment to detect it.
  • Even if it were 5,000,000 TB/sec, it wouldn't matter. High bandwidth data taps are not monitored in real time like a recording.

    Signals Intelligence and Ground Electronic Warfare equipment that is set up to do an unmanned monitor generally scans pseudo-randomly, looking for interesting patterns. When something sufficiently interesting happens, the equipment will alert a human operator, who can investigate, and respond as needed (ie. give that pattern/transmission/etc a higher priority to be monitored.)

  • --

    -- Begin NSA Keyword Spam --
    Bomb Cocaine President Nuclear Suitcase Bomb
    [... you get the idea ...]
    Computer Terrorism, Firewalls, Secure Internet Connections, ISS, Passwords,Encryption, Espionage
    -- End NSA Keyword Spam --

  • Blind Mans Bluff is the title of the book available through fine bookstores [] most everywhere, Harperperennial Library; ISBN: 006103004X. When it first came out in Hardcover I skimmed through it at the bookstore, seemed like it might be an interesting read but decided towait on the paperback. From the review on
    "about American submarine espionage during the Cold War"..."The most interesting chapter reveals how an American sub secretly tapped Soviet communications cables beneath the waves"
    A very brief biography of the author can be found here []
  • Haven't we done this in the past? At least the People are sort of aware of it going on this time around. The NSA shouldn't be allowed to operate outside the law, effectively wiretapping the conversations of millions of people at a time without their explicit permission or a court order.

    It's a felony punishable by explusion for a student to bring a tape recorder to school to record their teacher's lectures for replay at a later date, because if they don't expressly tell their teacher they are doing so and give them a chance to say no, they are violating federal wiretap laws. Shouldn't the NSA be held to the same standard, or either having to notify the people they are monitoring, or have a court order telling them it is acceptable to do so?

    If a government agency suddenly becomes above the law, as the NSA pretty much is, we should be afraid. Monitoring electronic conversations is no more right then monitoring someone's telephone.

    Let's all start sending e-mails with words like "C-4", "the President", "bodyguards", "suicide bomb", "PLO", "IRA", "marijuana", and "hijacking" in an effort to flood their computer system with meaningless messages, to force them to stop.

    Ohh wait, its been tried before, and failed.

  • Check out this European Parliament report [] on COMINT of automated processing for intelligence purposes of intercepted broadband systems. The author, Duncan Campbell, believes that the key means of accessing long distance optical fibre cables is by tampering with optoelectronic "repeaters".

    You can download the full study or others on civil liberties directly from the European Parliament STOA site [].
  • PGP your email to mom asking for some new underwear. The thing is, if everything is encrypted, they wont be able to tell what is actually supposed to be encrypted... they would have to decrypt EVERYTHING, this'll make sure of two things:

    1. Research on supercomputing in universities will get grants from the government.

    2. When you actually need to use encryption on something, they wont bother decrypting it.

  • one is to breach foreign information security, but their other is to keep US information secure

    Yes, unfortunately nowadays there are few cables in the world that don't contain information transmitted from the US. When tapping a cable, is the NSA restricted from monitoring US-originated packets, or is the information considered "offshore" the second it leaves our borders?

  • I'd expect the filtering to be done by phone # or ID header. E.g., rule 2 might be "record anything addressed to Osama Bin Laden." (Rule 1 would be to watch for packets to an NSA dummy account, which would actually be new orders for the filter.)
  • There was one _big_ difference -- they could inductively sense the current in the cable without cutting the casing. To tap optical fibers, you've got to slit all the protective layers until you get to naked glass. Putting the casing back together so it stays watertight at high pressure is going to be difficult. Hence to tap the copper cable, they just had to send out a diver to clamp the inductive coil onto the cable, and nowadays they could just use a robot arm on the sub; for the fiber optic, you _have_ to bring the cable into a dry work-room.
  • This has got nothing to do with wavelength division multiplexing. Learn a little about Fourier analysis: Only a continous, unvarying carrier wave can have a single frequency. When you modulate it to carry information, you spread out the wavelength. In the simplest modulation, on/off pulses are the sum of a whole lot of wavelengths, which travel through glass at slightly different speeds, so the pulse gets smeared out, and if not regenerated eventually the pulses overlap so much that 1's and 0's cannot be distinguished. More sophisticated modulation schemes can reduce this effect, but nothing that has been deployed outside of the laboratory eliminates it, in copper or fiber. Theoretically a pulse could be shaped so that in a non-linear medium (maybe an erbium-doped amplifier) the different wavelengths would react so as to pull the pulse back together, but so far this (called a "soliton") barely works in the laboratory. And if you know anything about telcom companies, you would know that once they get new technology working, they study it for five to twenty years before they take the risk of putting it in hard-to-reach locations.
  • by markmoss ( 301064 ) on Thursday May 24, 2001 @04:26AM (#202215)
    Erbium doped fiber amplifiers only boost the light amplitude. Any data carrying signal must include a range of wavelengths, and in anything except vacuum different wavelengths travel at different rates; this is called dispersion. So the pulses spread out as they travel, and eventually you have to put in a repeater that extracts the digital data and outputs it as nicely shaped pulses again. Theoretically you could pulses called "solitons" that self-correct for dispersion, but as far as I know we're about a decade from practical applications. So there electronic repeaters out there. However, from the little I know of undersea operations, I think that unless they can steal company records pinpointing the repeater location (and I'm not sure there are any such records), you are probably better off tapping the line where you first find it than trying to follow it to find repeaters spaced a hundred miles or so apart.

    As for the methods of tapping: With copper, you can just cut the outer casing, spread the wires about, and clamp an inductive pickup over each wire. You don't _have_ to penetrate the last layer of insultion, but if you want a physical splice, even this can be done without interrupting the signal. Any tap does change the impedance, which reflects a small percentage of the incoming signal, and there are (expensive) instruments that can detect this -- but if you cut in between two repeaters, you can pretty well count on that instrument not being built into the repeater. If there aren't too many wires, you might even be able to make an inductive pickup work from a few meters away.

    With fiber optics, you also have to cut through individual fiber's cladding. I can't see how you could splice into a fiber optic cable without cutting the signal off entirely for seconds -- in a backbone cable, that's billions of bits gone missing, and I _hope_ a cable operator is going to notice that. But you can bend the cable until a little light starts to escape. Once again, this causes reflections and a little loss of signal strength, which an even more expensive instrument could find. But the next repeater will destroy the evidence, so if you are picking the cable off the sea bottom hundreds of miles out, the only thing that could find the tap is instruments built right into the repeaters -- and that would cost maybe $50K for each repeater, every hundred miles or so, so I don't think they'd do that. Of course, you'd better do a _really_ good job of sealing up the cuts in the cable casing when you are done, or they'll find out about it when the cable goes bad.

    On the other hand, tap the London to Paris fiber where it crosses the English channel and you probably will get caught -- probably by the Royal Navy wondering what your sub is doing, but also I'd expect the repeaters to be on dry land where the techs can run tests whenever they get nervous about the condition of the cable.
  • When Apple came out with those G4 ads with the tanks surrounding the computer, I thought, I should get me one of those Macs to use as a crypto firewall.

    Then I thought, fuck it, and got me one of the tanks, instead.

    "4,096 seeds on the wall, 4,096 seeeeeds..."

  • After the tap had been completed, the hard work of interpreting the data began--and it proved difficult for the NSA, say those familiar with the project. "What we got was a blast of digital bits, like a fire hydrant spraying you in the face," says one former NSA technician with knowledge of the project. "It was the classic needle-in-the-haystack pursuit, except here the haystack starts out huge and grows by the second," the former technician says. NSA's computers simply weren't equipped to sort through so much data flying at them so fast.

    Gimme a break.

    Like the NSA went out and glommed onto a fiber a mile underwater without first reading a book on how fiber telecoms work or testing their equipment in a lab. They knew how much data to expect, and a lousy gigabit SONET line isn't going to slow them down a tenth of a percent.

    Other nonsense:

    The bit about worrying about high voltage. On a sub. Where the water pressure from a pinhole leak can cut your arm off; where the acid-filled batteries weigh more than the conning tower; where a salsa fart can linger for a month; this guy's worried about a double-shielded power line?

    The bit about worrying about being detected. The head ends might see a glitch of a few seconds in a fiber--one dropped call--hold their breath for half a minute waiting for it to happen again, then go back to reading their comic books when it doesn't. If a human even gets involved. If not, then the next day when the intern who refills the printer notices a couple of extra log messages on page 13482, he starts a conspiracy theory involving the Navy, the NSA, and sooper-seekrit spy subs. And the U.S. Intelligence Community would never fan a conspiracy theory (MJ-12), would they?

    All this story proves is that the Wall Street Journal is still the same bunch of hack-writing, research-cribbing, blind-quoting, three-day-late reporting losers I told where to shove their overpriced subscription ten years ago.


  • by Migelikor1 ( 308578 ) on Wednesday May 23, 2001 @06:44PM (#202219) Homepage
    Assuming that this is a simialar system to the wire taps used on the soviets in the 80s, the taps are set on the cable, and pods with nuclear reactors are placed alongside. The pods are carried in submarine torpedo tubes, and record massive ammounts of data onto tape drives. When the drives are getting full (or need to be checked) the pod containing the tapes is retrieved by a submarine and a new one is placed on the ocean floor, and connected to the power pod. This is not a system meant to let the government eavesdrop in real time by any means.
  • However, is it profitable for your average telco/communications company to face off with the NSA? If I were them, I wouldn't want to be in that position...

  • by 6EQUJ5 ( 446008 ) on Wednesday May 23, 2001 @05:49PM (#202234) Homepage
    I think it was CNN that did a whole documentry on the story. The ZDNet article seems to leave out one small detail -- a Russian double agent at the NSA gave the project away to the Soviets, and billions of dollars were lost on the project. Cool article though, at least they touched on some technical theories behind it.
  • Sifting through the zillions of bits and finding something useful is a little trickier.

    If they're successful at this, perhaps they can then help me with my inbox. My friends and coworkers keeping clogging up my mailbox, keeping me from the messages about "Making $5 mil in 30 days working from home on the Internet" and "Sexy Co-eds want you!"

    Don't my friends understand that I could extremely wealthy *and* have bodacious nymphs at my side ... if only I could get to reading their messages! *Sigh*

"The one charm of marriage is that it makes a life of deception a neccessity." - Oscar Wilde