Transatlantic cables will bypass USA to avoid NSA spying

Filed Under: Featured, Privacy

Brazil on the globe, image courtesy of ShutterstockA jointly funded, €135 million project will enable Brazil and the EU to bypass US-owned transatlantic cables, The New York Times reported, with plans to lay a modern high capacity fibre-optic cable from Lisbon, Portugal to Fortaleza, Brazil.

With her typical antipathy towards the US after past NSA email hacks, the President of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, said during the joint EU - Brazil news statement:

We have to respect privacy, human rights and the sovereignty of nations. We don't want businesses to be spied upon.

The internet is one of the best things man has ever invented. So we agreed for the need to guarantee the neutrality of the network, a democratic area where we can protect freedom of expression.

President of the EU Council, Herman Van Rompuy, also suggested the importance of bypassing the US whilst avoiding any blatant public criticism of NSA activity:

We will continue to enhance data protection and global privacy standards. A new fibre-optic submarine cable, connecting Latin America directly with Europe, would make an important contribution to these efforts.

This reads like an epic effort to sideline the USA from the rest of the Americas.

There is no doubt that the NSA's activities have helped to ensure there is the funding, economic model and political willpower to push this forward.

Other anti-NSA actions includes Rousseff's failed attempt to get local storage requirements included in the "Marco Civil" bill that was approved just recently.

This would have meant that the likes of Google, Amazon and Facebook would only be allowed to store personal details of Brazilian citizens in data centres based within Brazil itself.

Brazil also plans to create their own secure government email infrastructure to prevent spying.

In reality though, Brazil's transatlantic cable plans are unlikely to be driven by the desire to protect the privacy of individuals. It is much more likely to be about developing their digital economy and protecting both government and business confidentiality.

The initial plans for this Telebrás project was actually reported as early as March 2012, well before Snowden's disclosure about NSA activities. And the plans go well beyond just the Portugal-Brazil link: they include another transatlantic connection to Angola as well as connections down the coast to Uruguay, Argentina and up to the USA itself with an estimated budget of over €800 million.

In fact 'i3 Africa' announced their part in an even grander 34,000 kilometer, €1 billion-plus BRICS project during early 2012, with planned landing points in Miami (US), Fortaleza (Brazil), Cape Town (South Africa), Mauritius, Chennai (India), Singapore, Shantou (China) and Vladivostok (Russia).

Specifically, using non-USA cable routing will bypass the NSA's "Upstream" project, where in 2011 the telecom operators on the US side of the transatlantic cables helped PRISM intercept possibly 25 million internet communications.

This sort of activity has been known about since at least 2006, and the news of the NSA facility known as "Room 641A" within an AT&T switching station.

These cable projects will make Brazil the digital hub of the southern continent, with benefits to developing financial centres and increasing prominence to the São Paulo stock exchange.

All this could steal from the USA's market share in South America and elsewhere around the globe.

In this, as in other cases, the NSA appears to be driving business away from the USA.

Image of Brazil on globe courtesy of Shutterstock.

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13 Responses to Transatlantic cables will bypass USA to avoid NSA spying

  1. What concerns me most about the reaction to the NSA spying problem is the way we are now repeating with non-NSA agencies the same indulgence we gave to the NSA prior to Snowden - we are treating the absence of evidence as evidence of absence.

    Before the NSA there was no evidence of NSA spying so we acted as if it didn't happen. Now we know that it happens we act as if the NSA does *all* of the spying and behave as if nobody else does rather than drawing the more obvious conclusion that the NSA is simply the largest kid in the playground.

    Decentralisation is to be applauded, it's what makes the Internet so resilient, but we'd be foolish to behave as if the Brazilians, Russians, Indians, South Africans et al aren't as interested in espionage as the Five Eyes and that cables routed around the USA aren't subject to spying.

  2. John Bryan · 558 days ago

    Very true.

    Though the BRICS cable system does make a point of staying undersea as much as possible to reduce locations that can be tapped (e.g. instead of traveling overland across South Africa). Also some of the information I read seemed to imply that there will be direct connections between each pair of landing point such as e.g. a connection can be made between Vladivostok to South Africa without landfall at India.

    I don't know whether that is over enthusiastic hype or not. And even if correct it doesn't mean that it can not be spied on by diverted routing etc.

  3. Alien to the USA · 557 days ago

    And who'se to say the NSA don't have the capability to intercept an undersea fibre-optic cable and put some form of monitor on it?

    If it is put in place before the link is completed no one will even see a break in transmission or blip as the intercept is put in place.

    • John Bryan · 557 days ago

      With fibre optic cables and current technologies this is a less viable option, though I won't say impossible. For a start you can not use inductive or any other non-intrusive technologies.

      The cable is probably being monitored by the cable company themselves whilst it is still being layed to detect interuptions, whether accidental or intentional. Standard techniques used in that industry can identify where along it's length the cable break occurs. As single cable runs can be 6,000km long without repeaters these day then signal phase tests can presumably detect insertion of a cable tap that adds a repeater. Insertion of signal splitters can possibly be detected by signal reduction though I believe splitters can be used for tapping.

      It is not impossible. Just likely to be cheaper and easier to coerce or tap one of the few landing points that will exist into supplying a feed. Or intercept national cable traffic at some point on the land based backbone to the cable. Remember it is not just the USA with a history of tapping communications as Mark has already said.

  4. · 557 days ago

    Ever heard of submarines that tap cables? Old technology!

  5. John · 557 days ago

    Sorry, but technology to intercept fibre optic has been around for years, the submarine capability has been around since the cold war. As you say, the landing point, switch gear (made by US company?) etc will always be vulnerable.

    But anyway, I have little concern about NSA having access to, but actually doing nothing with, my last SMS saying I was on the way home from work.

    Much more invasive is likes of google actually accessing every email, monitoring every google maps access, driving camera cars up my street sniffing my wifi without consent. Looking at their next steps, google will soon know our heart rate and which room we turned the heating on in real time. High heart rate in the bed room presumably bombards us with relevant ads.

    I'd like to see google etc make the same promise Apple does with iMessage or WUALA with file storage - it's encrypted, we can't read it.

    Just a little challenge before I worry about fibre optic from south america.

  6. Sizzle_Bizzle · 557 days ago

    I'm concerned about the dolphins. Intelligent creatures them lot. What if the NSA have bribed them with prime cuts of tuna to carry out their evil doings?

    We need to employ sharks with frikkin' laser beams to combat the threat!

  7. Rusty Smith · 557 days ago

    More and more countries will isolate the United States over their outrageous NSA spying and no efforts to reel it in. We are the laughing stock of the world, and rightly so.

    • Spit Shine · 557 days ago

      Did you not read any of the previous comments? The USA is not the only country who spies. They just got caught with their hand in the cookie jar.

      Other countries will grandstand and put on a show but EVERY country has a spy agency.

      "We are the laughing stock of the world, and rightly so."

      I think the world is laughing at the US rankings in education, not because of our spying abilities.

  8. hotdoge3 · 556 days ago

    may be NSA set up shop in Brazil ?

  9. bamabrasileira · 556 days ago

    I hope if they do actually go through with this, that the Eurpeans head the project, as Brazil is still struggling with basic infrastructural issues like paved roads and high speed internet!

  10. Alan · 555 days ago

    Hasn't the USA been tapping undersea cables for decades?

  11. Dave · 548 days ago

    Anyone who has ever done business in Brazil has got to be amused by this. The NSA and the American Surveillance establishment hide behind unmarked buildings and protective fences, and spy on you secretly. The Brazillian government walks in through your front door, shakes you hand, smiles, sits down beside you, and cheerfully watches over your shoulder. Don't like it? Too bad. It's the law.

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About the author

John Bryan is proud to be one of the Sophos Labs back-room ‘geeks’ as a Senior Threat Researcher and the Technical Lead for DLP data production. John is also an accredited privacy specialist with the 'International Association of Privacy Professionals' (IAPP) and a co-chair of their London chapter. Before joining Sophos in 2008 he had been working in IT since the 80’s and has worked as a consultant to many of the big business names, typically reverse engineering and deployment roles.