February 7, 2006 4:00 AM PST

NSA eavesdropping: How it might work

Related Stories

Some companies helped the NSA, but which?

February 6, 2006

AT&T sued over NSA spy program

January 31, 2006

Bush allies defend NSA surveillance

January 24, 2006

Just how extensive is NSA's spy program?

December 22, 2005

Carnivore redux

January 31, 2005

(continued from previous page)

If the participating companies developed cold feet because of congressional scrutiny or class-action lawsuits, however, the NSA could conduct land-based wiretaps without the companies' participation, consultant Chovanak said. "There are things you can do without working with the providers," he said. "Every six miles on a fiber, there are tap points, and about every 50 miles there are repeaters, which are frequently going to be located in a small building in the middle of nowhere."

Tapping fiber a tricky business
Another option is more clandestine: listening in on a fiber-optic cable without inside help. For many years such a feat was considered to be virtually impossible--mainly because the strands of fiber are so fine that any tampering might disrupt the signal and prevent it from arriving at its intended destination.

That can be done by bending the fiber, to cause some light to leak, or by physically splicing into it. "It's very hard to do that without the recipient realizing the signal is being intercepted," said Corning's Jay, who estimates that it's difficult but not impossible. "It's hard to do without breaking the fiber... It's hard to imagine doing that in a way that doesn't greatly risk damaging the fiber."

Tapping copper cables, on the other hand, is far easier. When a phone wire or other electrical conductor carries a current, an electrical field is generated around the conductor. It's possible for a sufficiently sensitive device to measure the fields without actually splicing into the metal of the conductor. (Optical fiber doesn't generate electrical fields.)

Shade, the WildPackets engineer, said that "fiber-optic splitters are readily available on the commercial market." But he cautioned that any would-be eavesdropper must be extremely careful not to break the fiber strands.

"I think that's where a lot of the perception that fiber is untappable came from, was the difficulty of successfully handling the fiber without breaking it or seriously degrading its performance, because fiber is very temperamental," he said. "It's not like good old phone cable that you just throw down on the ground."

Experts say such a task requires extreme skill. "I would put myself on the side of those who say it's not so easy" to splice into fiber cables, said Ira Jacobs, a professor of electrical engineering at Virginia Tech. "I can access the individual fiber, I don't have to break the fiber and physically put in a tap. If I bend the fiber, I can get some leakage, but I have to access the fiber, I have to strip away other parts of the cable. It is not easy to do in a nonintrusive way."

The difficult task of underwater tapping
Tapping fiber cables while they're underwater transforms an already delicate process into one requiring exquisite surgical precision and skill.

The Wall Street Journal reported in May 2001 that the Navy had decided to spend 5 years and $1 billion to retrofit the USS Jimmy Carter submarine to make it capable of conducting fiber taps on the high seas. Specialized surface ships used by cable companies to repair breaks already have such facilities.

Making that task even more difficult is the high-voltage electrical cable that accompanies the fiber core and powers signal amplifiers dotted along the floor of the ocean. If water touches the electrical conductor during the splicing process, it could cause a huge short-circuit and set off alarms.

"You've got high energy in that fiber, so the capsule that the submarine uses is specifically designed to insulate the piece of cable that's being worked on and allows them to more effectively work on the power cables that are off limits," said Seth Page, the chief executive of Oyster Optics, which sells products to protect against optical tapping. "Because the last thing you want to do is accidentally open a power cable."

That's why the NSA probably reserves underwater, submarine-based tapping for cables that do not make landfall in the U.S.--such as the one linking the Middle East with India and Pakistan, Page believes. Underwater taps "can definitely happen, and I guarantee you it does happen from a higher level military point of view, such as for sensitive information coming out of China and Russia," he said.

Previous page
Page 1 | 2 | 3

See more CNET content tagged:
NSA, backbone provider, fiber, fiber-optics, Sprint Nextel


Join the conversation!
Add your comment
Speedy Gonzales
Anne and Declan, I enjoyed perusing Part 2. Anne, you are doing a fine job of reporting.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales swore or affirmed that he would tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. He no doubt did behind closed doors in the classified session, but here are likely answers to some questions the U.S. AG refused to answer in the public session:

Question 1: The number of people monitored?

Likely Answer: ALL CONUS-to-OCONUS and OCONUS-to-CONUS voice and data traffic.

Question 2: Safeguards put in place?

Likely Answer: As required by current Directives.

Question 3: Number of NSA analysts involved in the operation?

Likely Answer: Count the number of cars in the parking lot at Fort Meade, and multiple by three.

JP B-)
Posted by Catgic (106 comments )
Reply Link Flag
One who would give up.....
a little liberty for security, deserves neither.
Posted by Mr. Network (92 comments )
Link Flag
Apparently you didn't watch the same hearings
"Attorney General Alberto Gonzales swore or affirmed that he would tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth."

Alberto Gonzales WAS NOT sworn in for these hearings.
Posted by SteveBarry687 (170 comments )
Link Flag
backbone cut in 2 places
I'm not a conspriacy buff. But I wonder why and how the Internet backbone was cut in 2 places a couple of months a go???? At a minimum highly unlikely to occur at the same time. ???? without being planned!!!!
Posted by johnfrank (20 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Only Connect
Funny how control of the information infrastructure seems to fit with the US being a primary in that.

I defer to childhood author PL Traver's In Only Connect, the Mary Poppins said that writing, "aspires 'to find the human key to the inhuman world about us; to connect the individual with the community, the known with the unknown; to relate the past to the present and both to the future."

The administration seems to be interested in fracturization than connection.
Posted by marileev (292 comments )
Link Flag
i've got an idea, check to see if i'm being eavesdropped on. if so then you'll know something illegal is going on. i don't make calls to foreign countries, or know anyone, yet when having problems recieving my e-mails a while back, i was told something or someone wasn't letting them go thru. curious, huh? i'm just a country peon, but i thought that strange. as i said, check it out.pamela (fuller) holt 8870 hohenberger rd. foley, al. 36535 rock12@gulftel.com 215-943-2175
Posted by jassyline (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
eavesdropping & spying
You're right, this is disgusting. I'm on board with protecting my privacy and know that a couple years ago as a UW Undergrad our library records were probably scoured. My teammates and I have consistently had our bags searched when flewn - I link it to the Islam Project we did for the UW Adv. Digital Journalism class we took discussing the faces of Islam <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.com.washington.edu/program/news/digijournalism/islam/home.html" target="_newWindow">http://www.com.washington.edu/program/news/digijournalism/islam/home.html</a>

Checking out PBS host Fareed Zakaria's book, the Future of Freedom - <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.fareedzakaria.com/" target="_newWindow">http://www.fareedzakaria.com/</a>

Who is watching the watchers?
Posted by marileev (292 comments )
Link Flag
Stand by your Man
The song so appropo to the Clinton's CBS interview of Hilary not "standing by her man," isn't a problem for U.S. Attorney General Gonzales. The gavel to gavel coverage on NPR had him sernly supportive of President Bush and unfaltering in his support. Is this a good thing?

Likely no, keeping the American populace blissfully ignorant is not what we do in the U.S.

Gonzales' testimony yesterdya was highly hipocritical to his own DOJ bio:

"[we have] a special obligation to protect America against future acts of terrorism. We will continue to make that our top priority while remaining consistent with our values and legal obligations. That will be the lodestar that guides us in our efforts at the Department."  <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.usdoj.gov/ag/aggonzalesbio.html" target="_newWindow">http://www.usdoj.gov/ag/aggonzalesbio.html</a>

C'mon, we can handle the truth - <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.iwantmyess.com/?p=49" target="_newWindow">http://www.iwantmyess.com/?p=49</a>
Posted by marileev (292 comments )
Reply Link Flag
And A Few Days After The Gonzales Testimony
Just a few days after Mr. Gonzales tearful testimony, the Administration leaks that a skyscraper in Elle Lay was a target. These people are just so transparent in their attempts at media manipulation. Where is Teddy when you really need him -- oh, sorry, he is busy at the all male country club.
Posted by Stating (869 comments )
Link Flag
CNET aids the enemy?
Declan McCullagh has a history of writing from a very Leftist point of view. Too bad CNET has allowed this political slant to put down roots as an objective point of view would better serve CNET users. Some past CNET editor must have decided CNET's target users love a biased POV but I really prefer the straight facts. It's a sad fact that many "media outlets" have decided to program politically to appeal to a target audience. Like Fox and ABC.

As to this article, safeguarding our civil rights comes only after national security in importance. So discussing domestic spying in general terms is a good idea but digging into the nuts and bolts of who, how, when and where only aids the enemies of the United States.

Remember them? Those people who, if you are American, European or just non-muslin, want to cut your head off.

Oh, and the Democrat political party benefits too.

I am total disgusted at all political parties, the media and now CNET, using national security issues to gain selfish advantage.

So, speaking for the 25 million living American military veterans, I say...SHAME!

And I bet the dead vets would echo...SHAME!!!
Posted by mosshaven (20 comments )
Reply Link Flag
If you want to talk slanting Mr. Moss, I defer you to <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.foxnews.com" target="_newWindow">http://www.foxnews.com</a>

Some will find these slanted to the left. Many are in favor of this information. Which pill will you take the red or the blue? Americans are ready to go through the rabbit hole.
Posted by marileev (292 comments )
Link Flag
Please Don't Speak for Me
i appreciate that cnet is staying on top of this issue. and what is in the article is a summary of material available from various other books and publications.

as for the 25 million living veterans--please subtract one and don't bother speaking on my behalf.

mark d. doiron
retired cmsgt, usaf, 27-1/2 years
Posted by markdoiron (1138 comments )
Link Flag
As a vetrean of Desert Storm, I say bravo
Show the Bush admainistartion for the crroks they are.

Go back to watching Fox.
Posted by SteveBarry687 (170 comments )
Link Flag
Yes, CNET aids the enemy
It sure does !
It helps this administration's worst enemy: the Democrats !

They must realize all of them are wiretapped, all their communications are intercepted. As a result, if they want a chance in the tactical game of politics, they'd better encrypt all their correspondence (private/political/business), shut off their cellphone when they don't want their location traced and start behaving like a ... terrorist organization.

And we still call it democracy. What a sick joke !
Posted by My-Self (242 comments )
Link Flag
I'm of no particular mind concerning the author of the article, but it's really far too simple to say he writes with bias.

Having read that article and a dozen others hosted on various sites, pretty much the same information was covered.

Do everyone[this to all who whine about any slant when reading any article with a similar talkback feature] a favor and show where this bias is in the article, rather than falling back to a weak prop concerning past claims of impugned integrity[something that it would fall on the accuser to similarly verify as well].

As far as the article...cynicism rules the day--I was not surprised.
Posted by russ b (5 comments )
Link Flag
Speaking for vets??
Not me. I had 8 years of service time. And you don't speak for me. I make my own judgements.

The Shrub scares me at least as much as O. BenLaden.

And I know which one has the football!!!
Posted by bigduke (78 comments )
Link Flag
The 900 Pound Gorilla In The Corner
1. The FISA court law has been amended 5 times since 9/11 to
give the government increased flexibility.
2. In over 20,000 requests over some 28 years (according to Sen
Leahy) FISA has declined something like a dozen of those
3. The FISA application form is approx. 80-85% boilerplate
according to a CNN security analyst.
4. FISA Permission can be sought after action, so it's no drag on
5. In other words the FISA court is government friendly to a

I reckon if with FISA the govt. can pretty much do what it needs
to then there are possibly three reasons why they haven't. In
order of likelihood (1) The 900 LB gorilla in the corner (I'll come
back to that in a sec). (2) Arrogance; and (3) Laziness.

I rule out (3) 'cause from all I've seen most lawyers work
themselves to the bone. It could be (2) but 18 microseconds of
reflection by the smart minds of the NSA and Justice ought to
reveal that it isn't worth the trouble it brings - like right now,
and growing.

So, from my lil armchair I reckon (1), the 900 LB Gorilla, namely,
the nature of the "targets" of surveillance. And the only thing I
can think of that would keep folks from using all the free candy
FISA hands out is that those targets are domestic AND
POLITICAL (it wouldn't be the first time - FISA was in part a
reaction to the excesses of past governments in doing just that).

Strangely enough not one senator or congressperson appears to
have asked the "googly" question - "Do you tap me?" or the
closely related "are you/ have you tapped any domestic
Washington political types". Better still: "Can you assure us Mr.
Attorney-General that you have not?" Maybe the Republicans
who voted NOT to swear in the AG already know the answer.
Posted by kilamanjaro (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
I think you're right on (probably)
The breadth of the initial tapping is probably the mother load here.

"I'm sorry senator, can you define 'eavesdrop' before I answer the

Gonzales' stonewalling and hedging certainly suggests there's a
monster under the tablecloth.
Posted by mgreere (332 comments )
Link Flag
We need to stop the eavesdropping
The best way to stop the eavesdropping or at least make it worthless is to basically spam the system to death. If everyone and every e-mail had the following words in the header or message body there would be a massive overload of messages flagged so much so that there aren't enough computers or people at the NSA to process them because it would have to flag every single message and scrutinize the content. So put a permanent header of bomb, drugs, FBI, NSA, DEA and Al Quieda (sp) etc. It would only take up one line of your message, e-mail, advertisement etc. and it would overwhelm the system if a majority of the people would do it. To be truthful most people won't because they are too stupid, dum, or naive or just don't care that their privacy and constitutional rights are going out the window in the name of security.
Posted by avalo (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
nah ... try this instead ...
If you really want to ring the bells, try this ...

Cheney, proof, halliburton, 'creative accounting', lobbyist, Bush, Election, Diebold, Arbusto, 'Soft money', protest, 'Made in Israel', Scalito, Sheenan, 'James R. Bath', 'Intelligent design', Democrat, polls, facts, sex.

That should be enough ;-)
Posted by My-Self (242 comments )
Link Flag
I know a ting or two about surveillance. I think the NSA stuff is a smokescreen for the real stuff happening at the Dept. of Defense. I bet they put some crap on switches to monitor keyboards, video and mouse movements...not to mention capturing wireless network information. Just my opinion. Fuggedaboudit.
Posted by TSop (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Recommended readings:Revealing E-Mail's Secrets
Here is the link to
Revealing E-Mail's Secrets

<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.informationweek.com/shared/printableArticleSrc.jhtml?articleID=166403423" target="_newWindow">http://www.informationweek.com/shared/printableArticleSrc.jhtml?articleID=166403423</a>

Below is a post from a message board recomending it and below that a snipit from techweb.com that
mentions the former Homeland Security 'cyber czar',Amit Yoran,who has now replaced Gilman Louie as the CEO of In-Q-Tel.

The link at very bottom is to a news.com article
on the In-Q-Tel's and thus the CIA's Gilman Louie
with my reply to that story,'Gilman Louie and the CIA less than honest' posted as commentary to that news.com article .It would sure be good if news.com followed up with an interview of the new In-Q-Tel CEO Amit Yoran and ask him if he doesn't feel it a conflict of interest for the CIA or others with insider banking and investment records of individuals to also be competing with them in the 'securities' markets to begin with.Not to mention that their SRA International with so many ties and funding
from the Beltway not only may have insider info on banking and investing by way of their Mantas Inc connections but also have allowed their stock to be promoted by Bellador Group of Kuala Lumpur and Dubai,(a known boiler room often dealing in U.S.penny stocks),to recommend SRA Inrternational shares to their clients ! And Bellador Group or belladorgroup.com has also
dumped U.S.penny stocks around Asia and the world that looks suspiciously like money laundering and definitely pump and dump scams.

What is the CIA's and In-Q-Tel's company,SRA International,(that benefits greatly from federal government security and IT contracts and who claim they have anti-money laundering expertise ) Bellador Group connection ? Or at least why did a boiler room operation out of Kuala Lumpur, Dubai,etc. promote SRA International's shares ? Why did this boiler room,that is even suspect in Asian countries they operate out of,recommend SRA International shares to their clients in the first place ? Those questions would be a start and then the ethical and public responsibility the CIA has put itself in by investing in publically owned companies,whose shares they greatly control and economically benefit from the sale of to a potentially naive investing public who may lose money at the CIA empoyees' gain ?

Tony Ryals

Recommended readings:Want to know the hardware behind Echelon? Interception Capabilities 2000

A current example of this technology for emails can be found by reading  Revealing E-Mail's Secrets By Larry Greenemeier, InformationWeek August 2005: & Backed by In-Q-Tel, the CIA's technology incubator, Spotfire Inc. this week will introduce a tool for uncovering patterns and relationships in information extracted from E-mail messages&.. In-Q-Tel first approached Spotfire in 2003 when the CIA-backed venture-capital firm was looking to invest in technology that could find critical patterns by translating and analyzing data&. "The application is limited only by the creativity of the person who's trying to apply it."

Posted by: LuckyBogey at December 20, 2005 08:13 AM

From techweb.com :

Homeland Security Elevates Cyber Czar Spot

By Gregg Keizer, TechWeb News

Buried in the massive restructuring plans that Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced Wednesday for his 180,000-employee agency is a promotion in the position of national cyber security czar, a move that Congress and the computer security industry has been urging for months.........

"We appreciate both the efficiencies and the vulnerabilities of the modern technology on which so much of our society depends," said Chertoff in prepared remarks Wednesday as he outlined the DHS reorganization. "To centralize the coordination of the efforts to protect technological infrastructure, we will create the new position."

Calls to elevate the cyber czar position go back to mid-2004, but they gathered momentum when former Symantec executive Amit Yoran resigned suddenly from his post as director of the National Cyber Security Division in October, barely 12 months after he took the spot.

The secret behind the CIA's venture capital arm

<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://news.cbsi.com/The+secret+behind+the+CIAs+venture+capital+arm/2008-1082_3-5728548.html" target="_newWindow">http://news.cbsi.com/The+secret+behind+the+CIAs+venture+capital+arm/2008-1082_3-5728548.html</a>
Posted by (16 comments )
Reply Link Flag

Join the conversation

Add your comment

The posting of advertisements, profanity, or personal attacks is prohibited. Click here to review our Terms of Use.

What's Hot



RSS Feeds

Add headlines from CNET News to your homepage or feedreader.