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NSA Intercepts Links to Google, Yahoo Data Centers

Snowden documents show the National Security Agency is tapping links to Silicon Valley's data centers

2 min read
NSA Intercepts Links to Google, Yahoo Data Centers
Photo: Pawel Kopczynski/Reuters

National Security Agency spooks can apparently scoop up millions of records every day from the internal networks of Google and Yahoo by secretly tapping into the communication links connecting the Silicon Valley tech giants' data servers. The new revelations suggest that NSA surveillance goes well beyond the court-approved, front-door access to Google and Yahoo user accounts under the now-infamous PRISM program.

The new story from the Washington Post refers to "top-secret accounting dated Jan. 9, 2013" that shows how the NSA collected more than 181 million records from Yahoo and Google networks in 30 days—data including text, audio, video and metadata indicating who sent or received emails. The NSA accomplished this through a project called MUSCULAR, operated with the NSA's British counterpart known as Government Communications Headquarters, which intercepts the flow of data in the fiber-optic cables linking data centers around the world.

News of the NSA's activities led to an angry response from Google in the form of a statement by David Drummond, Google's chief legal officer.

“We have long been concerned about the possibility of this kind of snooping, which is why we have continued to extend encryption across more and more Google services and links, especially the links in the slide. We do not provide any government, including the U.S. government, with access to our systems. We are outraged at the lengths to which the government seems to have gone to intercept data from our private fiber networks, and it underscores the need for urgent reform.”

A slide from an NSA presentation titled "Google Cloud Exploitation" detailed how the NSA's MUSCULAR effort bypassed Google's security measures. Two engineers close to Google "exploded in profanity" when they saw the NSA illustration, according to the Washington Post.

Yahoo also denied giving the government permission to access its systems in such a manner.

But the NSA's MUSCULAR program appears to get away with such large-scale data collection by intercepting the data center links overseas, where such intelligence gathering is beyond the reach of most U.S. statutory restrictions and outside the jurisdiction of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. That allows the intelligence agency to operate under the looser rules of the presidential Executive Order 12333.

The NSA tried to counter the Washington Post story by denying that it had tried to use the executive order to bypass U.S. laws, according to Politico. But an NSA spokeswoman declined to discuss whether the agency had infiltrated the data center links.

Gen. Keith Alexander, head of the NSA, said that the agency is "not authorized" to tap into company data centers and must "go through a court process," during a Bloomberg cyber summit on Oct. 30. And he continued to warn that attempts to set new rules for cyber spying could increase the risks for national security.

The NSA's current woes go beyond a huge publicity problem and possible political backlash. The agency's controversial new Utah data-storage center has run into electrical problems during its past 13 months of construction.

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How the FCC Settles Radio-Spectrum Turf Wars

Remember the 5G-airport controversy? Here’s how such disputes play out

11 min read
This photo shows a man in the basket of a cherry picker working on an antenna as an airliner passes overhead.

The airline and cellular-phone industries have been at loggerheads over the possibility that 5G transmissions from antennas such as this one, located at Los Angeles International Airport, could interfere with the radar altimeters used in aircraft.

Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images

You’ve no doubt seen the scary headlines: Will 5G Cause Planes to Crash? They appeared late last year, after the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration warned that new 5G services from AT&T and Verizon might interfere with the radar altimeters that airplane pilots rely on to land safely. Not true, said AT&T and Verizon, with the backing of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, which had authorized 5G. The altimeters are safe, they maintained. Air travelers didn’t know what to believe.

Another recent FCC decision had also created a controversy about public safety: okaying Wi-Fi devices in a 6-gigahertz frequency band long used by point-to-point microwave systems to carry safety-critical data. The microwave operators predicted that the Wi-Fi devices would disrupt their systems; the Wi-Fi interests insisted they would not. (As an attorney, I represented a microwave-industry group in the ensuing legal dispute.)

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