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Glimmerglass Taps Undersea Cables for Spy Agencies

BERKELEY, California, Aug 23 2013 (IPS) - Glimmerglass, a northern California company that sells optical fibre technology, offers government agencies a software product called “CyberSweep” to intercept signals on undersea cables.

The company says their technology can analyse Gmail and Yahoo! Mail as well as social media like Facebook and Twitter to discover “actionable intelligence”.

Could this be the technology that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) is using to tap global communications? The company says it counts several intelligence agencies among its customers but refuses to divulge details. One thing is certain – it is not the only company to offer such capabilities – so if such data mining is not already taking place, that day is not far off.

The GCHQ Advantage

Why go overseas to collect the data? Well, there are legal obstacles in the U.S. to collecting phone calls made by U.S. citizens - such a programme would violate the fourth amendment to the U.S. constitution that protects individuals against invasion of privacy. (Exceptions are granted for communications with foreigners if government agencies suspect terrorism under a 1981 presidential executive order, although they still need approval of the U.S. Attorney General).

But given that U.S. laws stop at the border, foreign spy agencies like GCHQ can legally pick up and store any and all information from data that travels outside the country, suggest reporters at the Guardian newspaper.

"We know the NSA is forbidden from spying on American citizens; in the case of (Faizal) Shahzad (the would-be Times Square bomber in New York), this question remains - was GCHQ doing it for them?" ask the Guardian reporters, noting that the GCHQ now has the "opportunity to build such a complete record of someone's life through their texts, conversations, emails and search records" allowing it to make a "unique contribution to the NSA in providing insights into some of their highest priority targets."

“Revolutions in communications technologies are usually followed by revolutions in collection capabilities,” said Jeffrey Richelson, a senior fellow at the National Security Archives and the author of the definitive guide to the U.S. intelligence agencies.

The recent leaks by whistleblower Edward Snowden to the Guardian newspaper specifically suggest that the NSA is tapping undersea cables, although no details on the specific technology have yet been published. Notably Snowden has revealed evidence that the NSA paid 15.5 million pounds (25 million dollars) in 2009 to “radically” upgrade a listening station operated by its U.K. equivalent – the Government Communications Head Quarters (GCHQ) in Bude, north Cornwall, England, where many of the cables surface.

If GCHQ and the NSA installed Glimmerglass’s commercial optical fibre switching technology on the undersea cables to tap the torrent of data that crosses the Atlantic, they will be able to pair it up with CyberSweep to make sense of the information, according to advertising claims made in a treasure trove of documents on dozens of surveillance contractors released by Wikileaks.

Privacy experts say that if the NSA is using this Glimmerglass technology, it will prove whistleblower Edward Snowden’s claim that the government is collecting everyone’s communications, regardless of their citizenship or innocence.

Vanee Vines, a spokesperson for the NSA, declined to comment to IPS on either Glimmerglass or the tapping of the undersea cables. Glimmerglass officials did not return multiple email and phone calls.


On the Glimmerglass website, the company claims that CyberSweep can process optical signals to “extract the data source format” and aggregate the data for “probes” to uncover “actionable information from the flood of data on persons of interest, known and unknown targets, anticipated and known threats.”

More details on what Glimmerglass claims CyberSweep can do are explained in “Paradigm Shifts” – a confidential 18 page Powerpoint presentation made in 2011 by Jim Donnelly, the Glimmerglass vice president of North American sales. The document was released by Wikileaks as part of the Spy Files series in December of that year.

On page five of the presentation, Glimmerglass notes that CyberSweep is an “end to end cyber security solution” that can “select, extract and monitor” all “mobile and fixed line data, voice and video, internet, web 2.0 and social networking” with “probes and sniffers.” On the following page, it notes that its product can be used at “submarine landing stations” – a reference to the locations where the undersea cables are connected to terrestrial systems.

Are Companies Helping Invade Privacy?

Civil liberties experts have denounced the practice of wholesale data collection. "By injecting the N.S.A. into virtually every crossborder interaction, the U.S. government will forever alter what has always been an open exchange of ideas," says Jameel Jaffer, the deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Such collection would also violate numerous legal principles that safeguard individual privacy. In addition to the fourth amendment to the U.S. constitution, human rights experts say that it would violate Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The big questions now are what role did the telecommunication companies play in the data interception and are intelligence contractors like Glimmerglass helping to design the collection and analysis system?

"Tempora would not have been possible without the complicity of these undersea cable providers," says Eric King, head of research at Privacy International. "What we, and the public, deserve to know is this: To what extent are companies cooperating with disproportionate intelligence gathering, and are they doing anything to protect our right to privacy?"

On page eight, Glimmerglass provides specific examples of what it can gather – like Gmail, Yahoo! Mail as well as Facebook and Twitter. Over the next four pages it offers screenshots of these capabilities.

One display of what CyberSweep is capable of is a visual grid of Facebook messages of a presumably fictional person named John Smith. His profile is connected to a number of other individuals with arrows indicating how often he connected to each of them. Each individual can be identified with images, user names and IDs. Another pane shows the detailed chat records. Yet another graphic shows Facebook connections between multiple individuals, presumably to identify networks.

A third graphic is a grid of phone calls made by an individual with a pane that allows an operator to select and listen to audio of any specific conversation. Other images show similar demonstrations of monitoring webmail and instant message chats.

Where is this product being used? In a product video on the company website, Glimmerglass states that their optical data management products have been used by the U.S. intelligence agencies for the last five years. The video specifically mentions data transmissions from Predator drones and well as the tapping of undersea fibre optic cables, but it does not go into any details.

“The challenge of managing information has become the challenge of managing the light,” says an announcer. “With Glimmerglass, customers have full control of massive flows of intelligence from the moment they access them.”

The description mirrors the technology described in documents provided by Edward Snowden to the Guardian newspaper.

Collecting all the signals

In a document released by Snowden, Lieutenant General Keith Alexander, the NSA director, was quoted on a June 2008 visit to an intelligence facility in the U.K., saying: “Why can’t we collect all the signals all the time? Sounds like a good summer project.”

According to the leaked documents, a three year trial project was soon set up with a 25-million-dollar grant from the NSA to “radically enhance the infrastructure” at the Cyber Development Centre in Bude, Cornwall, as well as potentially at other sites like the GCHQ base in Cheltenham.

Probes were installed on 200 undersea cables and in the fall of 2011, a project code-named Tempora was launched with the help of NSA analysts who came to help at the Bude site. At least seven companies took part in the project – British Telecom, Global Crossing, Interoute, Level 3, Viatel, Verizon Business and Vodafone Cable – according to the German paper Suddeutsche Zeitung, all of whom manage major undersea cable systems.

Under Tempora, a three-day buffer of global internet traffic was held at any given time – totaling some 600 million “telephone events” a day or as much as 21 petabytes (million gigabytes) of data. While much of it was deleted through a process called Massive Volume Reduction for reasons of space, the meta-data (such as the details of who called whom, and when, but not the content) was held for as long as 30 days.

Snowden’s documents suggest that GCHQ now “produces larger amounts of metadata than NSA” which was being analysed by 300 U.K. analysts in addition to 250 NSA analysts, as of last May. The U.K. analysts were encouraged to dig deep since they had a less onerous oversight regime compared to the U.S.

“Over the last five years, GCHQ’s access to ‘light’ (has) increased by 7,000 percent,” a Tempora official is quoted as saying in another Powerpoint document cited in the Guardian. “We will have exploited to the full our unique selling points of geography, partnerships, the UK’s legal regime and our skilled workforce.”

A recent interview of a “senior intelligence official” by the New York Times confirmed that “the N.S.A. is temporarily copying and then sifting through the contents of what is apparently most e-mails and other text-based communications that cross the border” by making a “clone of selected communication links.” The official did not state where the communications were being intercepted.

Pratap Chatterjee is executive director of CorpWatch. This story originally appeared on

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