August 9, 2013 | By Trevor Timm

First Step of NSA Transparency: Come Clean About Access To Fiber Optic Cables of Telecom Companies

Prior to President Obama’s press conference on potential surveillance reform today, two important stories were published showing National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance has gone farther than government officials have admitted publicly. Now that the President has promised transparency on NSA surveillance, it’s time for the NSA to come completely clean to the American public. They can start by explaining—in detail—how and why they are obtaining the content of communications transiting telecom networks, which then go into the databases behind NSA programs.

First, the background: on Thursday, the New York Times published a blockbuster story on its front page, detailing how the NSA “is searching the contents of vast amounts of Americans’ e-mail and text communications into and out of the country.” Today, the Guardian published more secret documents and an interview with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore) showing that the NSA has secret permission to search its vast databases of individual Americans’ communications without a warrant.  

These stories add to the towering pile of revelations showing that the NSA and the administration are not being honest with the American public – not just omitting classified information, but affirmatively misleading.  The government has implied, on numerous occasions, that the content program was narrow, and required a court order for United States persons. 

The New York Times explained how the NSA could technically search such vast quantities of email:

Computer scientists said that it would be difficult to systematically search the contents of the communications without first gathering nearly all cross-border text-based data; fiber-optic networks work by breaking messages into tiny packets that flow at the speed of light over different pathways to their shared destination, so they would need to be captured and reassembled.

Sound familiar? That’s because we have known since 2006 that the NSA built a secret room in AT&T’s facilities in San Francisco to do this gathering (plus more).  The facilities, including a bank of fiber optic splitters, make a copy of all communications traveling over AT&T’s fiber optic cables connecting AT&T’s network to the Internet.

AT&T whistleblower Mark Klein gave us blueprints and photos of the room, plus descriptions of the filtering and selection technologies inside at the time and we’ve been involved in two long running lawsuits over it ever since. Mark Klein’s evidence indicates several other facilities exist in the Western U.S. plus one in Atlanta.  In addition, former NSA mathematician William Binney estimates the NSA did something similar in 10-20 key telecom switches around the country. NSA slides published by the Guardian confirm the NSA has this type of access, and the New York Times story this week just provides the latest evidence.

Nevertheless, the Administration has failed to engage in an honest debate about the splitters.  Congress needs to pick up the ball and demand public answers, including:

  • how many fiber optic splitters are in operation in the U.S.
  • how many splitters (anywhere) divert the communications of U.S. persons?
  • how much content is diverted each day? (measured by number of people, number of message, and number of petabytes).
  • how much content is stored?
  • what type of filters are used, and at what point in the process? 

The time for vague dismissals of these charges, or vague, misleading discussions, has past.

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