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Before PRISM, There Was Underwater Cable Tapping

Government surveillance and the tapping of communication cables is not a new threat to public privacy. Edward Snowden may have brought to light some of the NSA’s more recent eavesdropping strategies, but citizen surveillance in America has a much older...


Illustration by Jennifer Ilett.

Government surveillance and the tapping of communication cables is not a new threat to public privacy. Edward Snowden may have brought to light some of the NSA’s more recent eavesdropping strategies, but citizen surveillance in America has a much older history. In fact, tapping civilian communication lines dates all the way back to the late 1800s and America's occupation of the Phillipines, which in part served as a test-run for the US to figure out how they could create a surveillance state in the burgeoning information age. 

Long before whistleblower Edward Snowden or any mention of the PRISM program, people were intercepting one-another’s phone calls. Early phone systems required a human operator to patch through a call, and that human connection made it very easy for a third-party to eavesdrop. But it wasn’t until the creation of operator-free phones that we saw the invention of modern cable tapping.

In order to try and get a better sense of how the history of surveillance has evolved since people first learned how to use a telephone, I gave surveillance expert and NSA critic James Bamford a call. He’s an American best-selling author of a book called Body of Secrets in which he explores the history of citizen surveillance in America, to find out more about how cable tapping originated.

Bamford explained that, “in the early 20th century a lot of communication cables were made from copper, which made tapping them quite a bit easier than today’s fiber optic cables.”

He also noted that a hacker, “wouldn’t need to use any invasive measures to tap a copper cable,” because they radiated electromagnetic energy. Instead of splicing it, Bamford explained you would only need to wrap the cable in a bugging device that could pick up the vibrations of its passing information. 

Throughout the last century there have been plenty of examples of American governments tapping domestic and foreign communication lines. Including 1945’s Project SHAMROCK where the Armed Forces Security Agency received a microfilm copy of every telegram that entered and left the country. Or the Watergate Scandal in which President Nixon attempted to wiretap the Democratic National Committee headquarters. 

But just as these types of above-land interceptions began to become commonplace, Russia, the Cold War threat, moved their communication cables somewhere very out of reach—the bottom of the ocean floor.

But don’t worry, America found a way to tap that too. They implemented Operation Ivy Bells, a covert operation to tap the Russian submarine communication cable in the Sea of Okhotsk. This cable was in an important location that joined the major Soviet Pacific Fleet naval base at Petropavlovsk on the Kamchatka Peninsula to the Soviet Pacific Fleet's mainland headquarters at Vladivostok. As Bamford pointed out, “the US had a big big interest in finding out what was going on on that cable. So they sent a navy submarine called the USS Halibut to tap it, even though it was in enemy waters”. He continued, “the submarine stayed close to the shorelines. To find the cable they searched for signs along the coast directing local fishing boats to steer clear of underwater lines.”

In the instance of operation Ivy Bells, the US army felt the cable could divulge invaluable information about Russian missile operations, and so it’s relatively easy to understand their motives for surveillance. But after the Cold War, these methods did not disappear. In fact, they grew stronger and stronger as world-wide underwater communication cables grew alongside the rise of the Internet.

Today, every single country is plugged into hundreds of inter-connected submarine communication cables that are collectively known as the “backbone of the Internet”. Together these lines communicate about 99% of all Internet data around the world. The image below shows exactly where most of these underwater cables are located. Unsurprisingly, many submarine communication cables have landing points on US or US friendly soil.


America is all wired up. via Submarine Cable Map.

Because of the relatively easy-to-hack nature of copper cables, as well as their limited capabilities, most of the modern submarine communication networks run using fiber optics. Unlike their radiating predecessors, fiber optic cables use a beam of light to transfer data and that beam cannot usually be detected outside of the cable itself. That means that you cannot easily tap fiber optic cables without risky invasive procedures. But even so, there are a couple of ways to do it and Bamford walked us through the first one:

“Fiber optic cables don’t use electricity like copper cables do; they use photons, a beam of light, to transfer data. To tap a fiber optic cable you put a prism into the cable itself so it forms a sort-of crystal triangle. When the light beam hits the prism one light beam then splits into two light beams. The original light beam continues on to wherever it was going—an email, Facebook, another country, whatever. Then the second light beam—this new mirror image—is directed to a nearby surveillance data center.” Well, I guess now we know where the PRISM name comes from.

The second way to tap a fiber optic cable is by bending the cable until it leaks light. This method is both non-invasive (so it’s harder to detect by security systems) and relatively cheap. For around $1000, any hacker can purchase the equipment necessary to pull off a fiber optic cable tap on land, although if the cable happens to be underwater the cost would probably be a lot higher.

Both tapping methods are an effective way to source private internet data and we know, thanks to Snowden, that these methods have been employed by the NSA. In fact, as Bamford explained to us, there is a still active US navy submarine called the USS Jimmy Carter that was rumored to have been outfitted with a hull specifically designed to allow technicians to tap fiber optic submarine cables while remaining underwater.

The PRISM revelations brought to the world by Edward Snowden and the Guardian showed the world that cable tapping is common practice in government surveillance, and it probably isn’t going anywhere. One only needs to recall the Five Eyes—an intelligence partnership finalized in 1980 between Canada, the United States, England, Britian, and New Zealand to completely spy on the world—to realize this is nothing new. Although the methods of tapping communication gateways has evolved from bugging telephone lines and tapping submarine cables to collecting internet metadata and filling up military data centers with digital information, the heart of the operation remains the same.

For a very long time, our governments have been tapping civilian communication lines without public knowledge, in order to gain access to our most intimate information. The frightening truth is that it probably won’t stop. So maybe the next time you’re thinking of sharing some important piece of information via email, try hand delivering a note instead. Or try something really novel and have a conversation in person. It’s more secure that way.



Follow Monica on Twitter: @MonBlaylock

Check out MOTHERBOARD's NSA Baiting Phrase Generator: "Hello, NSA"

Previously on internet surveillance:

Dodge the NSA with this Fancy Encrypted Messaging Service

The Canadian Government Is Not Bothered by PRISM and the NSA

Canadians Should Be Concerned about PRISM and the NSA