The newest NSA leaks reveal that governments are probing “the Internet’s backbone.” How does that work?
In the early 1970’s, the U.S. government learned that an undersea cable ran parallel to the Kuril Islands off the eastern coast of Russia, providing a vital communications link between two major Soviet naval bases. The problem? The Soviet Navy had completely blocked foreign ships from entering the region.
Not to be deterred, the National Security Agency launched Operation Ivy Bells, deploying fast-attack submarines and combat divers to drop waterproof recording pods on the lines. Every few weeks, the divers would return to gather the tapes and deliver them to the NSA, which would then binge-listen to their juicy disclosures.
The project ended in 1981, when NSA employee Ronald Pelton sold information about the program to the KGB for $35,000. He’s still serving his life prison term.
The operation might have ended, but for the NSA, this underwater strategy clearly stuck around.
In addition to gaining access to web companies’ servers and asking for phone metadata, we’ve now learned that both the U.S. and the U.K. spy agencies are tapping directly into the Internet’s backbone — the undersea fiber optic cables that shuttle online communications between countries and servers. For some privacy activists, this process is even more worrisome than monitoring call metadata because it allows governments to make copies of everything that transverses these cables, if they wanted to.