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Photographs of the Underwater Telecommunication Cables Tapped by the NSA

Trevor Paglen took a literal deep dive into government surveillance for his latest project.
September 10, 2015, 4:00am

'Columbus III, NSA/GCHQ-Tapped Undersea Cable, Atlantic Ocean, 2015, C-print, 48 x 60 inches, courtesy of Metro Pictures Gallery. Photo by Trevor Paglen. For the exhibition, Paglen photographed underwater and beachside cables that the NSA uses to siphon data.

This article appears in the September Issue of VICE

When I met the artist Trevor Paglen to talk about the surveillance state, I found him crouched in the back of a metal bar called Rasputin. He was in Istanbul for an arts and culture festival where he was giving a lecture on government secrecy, a major theme in his work. We'd spent the last few days at a hotel that used to be a hangout for American spies, and it felt fitting that we left the onetime spook house to discuss the NSA in an antiestablishment bar named after a mystic tied to the downfall of the Russian monarchy.


Paglen began telling me about his latest project, which investigates domestic spying at its source.

"When we talk about the internet or mass surveillance—which are basically two sides of the same coin at this point—we use horribly mystifying metaphors to describe them: the cloud, the world wide web, the Information Superhighway, and so on," he said.

"But everything in the world is made of stuff, right? Where is the stuff that mass surveillance is made of, and what does it look like?"

Over the noise of speed guitar and blast beats, Paglen elaborated that people tend to think of all things online as nowhere and everywhere at the same time—abstract tools that connect people across the world as if by magic. "But what," he posed, "do they connect people over?"

In Tubes, a book exploring the materiality of the web, author Andrew Blum writes: "The Internet exists—it has a physical reality, an essential infrastructure, a 'hard bottom.'" While we are accustomed to thinking of it in abstract, confounding platitudes like "the net" or "1's and 0's," the government and military view the internet very differently. Surveillance agencies like the NSA see fiber optic cables, hardware networks, and data centers—concrete things.

This is ripe material for Paglen, who worked as a cinematographer on Citizen Four, the Oscar-winning Edward Snowden documentary. He has also photographed NSA listening stations in the deep woods of West Virginia, testing grounds for chemical and biological weapons in Utah, government-controlled black-site prisons in Afghanistan, classified American spy satellites, and other ghost objects and structures.


By necessity, he often captures his images from extraordinary distances, using telephoto lenses and gear designed for astrophotography. But for his latest project—an unnamed exhibition opening September 10 at Metro Pictures Gallery in New York—the 41-year-old got up-close to surveillance tools while taking a literal deep dive into secret government operations. Paglen photographed the underwater fiber optic cables that compose the physical infrastructure of the internet, specifically the places where the NSA taps them to mine personal data.

"I was thinking about how the NSA looks at telecommunications networks," Paglen told me in a later conversation. "It wears a certain type of goggles to see them, and I wanted to explore what the internet looks like when you put the NSA's goggles on."

For more on Trevor Paglen, watch The Creators Project's 2013 documentary on the artist:

Today, the vast majority of internet traffic, telephone calls, browsing data, and emails cross the world along seafloor fiber optic wires. The government first started tapping these during the Cold War, when the NSA, CIA, and Navy launched Operation Ivy Bells, in which submarines and divers used recording pods to spy on the Soviets. The initiative ended in 1981, when NSA analyst Ronald Pelton was caught selling information about the program to Russia, but the same surveillance tactics have persisted into the present.

According to Paglen, these cables belong to telecommunications companies, but the NSA will offer them money (or threaten to take them to court, citing the PATRIOT Act, the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, and a combination of legal and extralegal threats) to access the tubes' "chokepoints," a colloquial name for coastal landing sites or shallow areas where the cables converge. As Edward Snowden revealed in an archive he released, the NSA taps the chokepoints with submarines such as the USS Jimmy Carter, which has been called "the Navy's underwater eavesdropper."

The NSA isn't alone in its efforts. The agency reportedly cooperates with its UK equivalent, the Government Communications Headquarters, which has a subsidiary program called Tempora that siphons some 20 million gigabytes of data a day from more than 200 cables that collectively stretch 600,000 miles across the world.

In theory, these surveillance organizations could record any type of information that travels over the cables—Facebook posts, email exchanges, or browsing histories—making this type of privacy invasion more nefarious than trawling metadata like call logs.


For the exhibition, Paglen photographed a number of the most prominent underwater and beachside chokepoints. In doing so, he documented exactly where internet communication and privacy invasion intersect in the most literal manner possible.

Finding the sites posed the greatest challenge. For that, he used maritime atlases—maps created in order to prevent ships from dropping anchors on the cables—that show their general location. "Those are accurate up to about a couple hundred yards," he explained. Then he used maps of reefs to identify where the cables protrude from the ocean floor. "I used this information to basically make giant search patterns, like drawing a square on a map and putting the GPS coordinates in there, before diving down with a team to shoot." He named the artworks after individual cables one can find in maps online, indirectly making the chokepoints—and their coordinates—public knowledge.

"There are a few places in the world where all these undersea cables come ashore," Paglen told me. "They're really specific places in terms of geography." On the West Coast of the United States, they can be found in Seattle, Washington; Hillsboro and Bandon, Oregon; and Point Arena and Morro Bay, California. On the East Coast, there are landing sites in Mastic Beach and other parts of Long Island, New York; Manasquan and Tuckerton, New Jersey; and Boca Raton and Hollywood, Florida.


The Southeast is especially dear to the NSA. Few telecom companies use cables that run directly from Europe or Africa to South America; instead they pass through the US by way of Florida. "The NSA loves that because even if someone in Portugal is talking to somebody in Argentina, and while that theoretically has nothing to do with us, they can spy on them because the cable is routed through the US," Paglen said. "To the NSA, the chokepoints are important because they're in places where they can pluck a lot of information from across the globe very efficiently."

'Mid-Atlantic Crossing (MAC) NSA/GCHQ-Tapped Undersea Cable Atlantic Ocean' (2015). C-print 48 x 60 in. Courtesy of Metro Pictures. Photo by Trevor Paglen

The photographs in the exhibition are interesting in that there's "nothing to see," Paglen said. The shots are basically just blue color fields, murky reefs, and unremarkable tubes. They're almost a foil to those mystified metaphors we use to describe the web.

"I like playing with the idea that here's a photograph of this thing that is literally invisible—you can't see this [massive surveillance infrastructure]. As hard as you try, you will not see it, but I have all this documentation and research that points to the fact that it exists in this giant tap on an underwater cable," Paglen said.

The artist has visualized certain "weapons" the NSA uses to spy on society and has also obliquely geo-tagged where they operate. But photographing these tools doesn't get us any closer to answering what the NSA is doing with them. "I'm more interested in these things not being resolved," Paglen admitted. "The art isn't about these one-to-one relationships."

For him, the series is about "that failure of vision—or that failure of the way the world works to line up with your ability to perceive it." The photographs expose the net, the web, as something like a physical trap.

Trevor Paglen's latest exhibition is open at Metro Pictures in New York from September 10 through October 24. For more information, visit the gallery's website here. And a special thank you to Istanbul '74 and Marcella Zimmerman.

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