20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – NSA Taps into Fiber Optic Cables

WebIt’s the sort of thing you would have expected if George Orwell and Jules Verne had been contemporaries and collaborated on a novel.  The Department of Defense creates a vast Hypertext Transfer Protocol Network and allows the private sector to take it over and expand it worldwide. Rather than passing through the pesky step of securing private data through the system’s service providers, the government simply taps into the data as it passes through the undersea fiber optic cables stretching from one continent to another. Suddenly the World Wide Web is one vast party line, at least from the NSA’s perspective.

That’s the theory presently being promulgated by investigative reporters with the New York Times. According to The Times‘ article, NSA May Have Hit Internet Companies at a Weak Spot , the data centers belonging to companies like Yahoo and Google are “are locked down with full-time security and state-of-the-art surveillance, including heat sensors and iris scanners.”   If anything, it’s easier for government spies to tap the Level 3 Communications Infrastructure, the so-called backbone of the  World Wide Web, made up of  high capacity optic fiber cables owned by companies like Verizon, the BT Group, and the Vodafone Group.

Nearly everything you and I do online passes through this backbone in route to its final destination.  I  guess you can say that the NSA has taken up global  spinal tapping: sampling the flow of information for infectious or inflammatory elements.

In 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Vernes wrote “The sea is everything. It covers seven tenths of the terrestrial globe… It is an immense desert, where man is never lonely, for he feels life stirring on all sides.”

This statement is perhaps more true now than ever before.  The sea is a very busy place indeed. And the NSA is one very busy body.

International Travel Alert: Your Laptop Can Be Seized by Federal Agents Without A Warrant

tsaDid you know that at the United States Border, U.S. agents can legally seize your laptop, iPad, and other electronic devices without a search warrant and without probable cause? Not only can they seize it and  search its contents, they can take their own sweet time doing so. You may not see your laptop again for weeks.

Based on legal precedent, the Fourth Amendment — the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures — does not apply along the border. Furthermore, said border can extend one-hundred miles into the interior of the country. 

There have also been cases of laptops being seized from airline passengers returning from foreign countries. The  government may be backing off on this particular invasion of privacy, however, as it has just reached a settlement with Human Rights Activist David House, whose laptop, camera, and USB drive were seized when he returned to the United States after vacationing abroad.  In the settlement, the government  has agreed to destroy all data it obtained from his laptop and other electronics.

Then again, the government is not paying any restitution and, according to the terms of the settlement, House is responsible for his own legal fees. So what is to stop agents from doing the same thing in the future?

Some travelers with computers containing confidential or proprietary information now scrub their hard drives prior to traveling internationally (not terribly practical if you’re traveling on business).  Others have  an expert encrypt their data behind a secure password.  The catch is, should your laptop or iPad be seized, neither of these strategies will help you get it back any sooner. On the contrary, I’m willing to bet that if the contents are encrypted, government agents are likely to hold it all the longer as they attempt to hack it.

In addition, there is also a possibility that your computer may be returned to you with a few freebies added. As I discussed in a previous post, the NSA has been intercepting laptops in transit and installing malware on them which can record what users are typing across their screens.

Using a malware compromised computer offline may not necessarily protect you from prying eyes. It has recently come to light that the NSA has embedded some computers (mostly those owned by foreigners or by suspected terrorists) with with tiny circuit boards or USB cards that emit radio waves, enabling them to spy on offline computers.

True, you may be the last person in America security personnel would ever mistake for a spy. Then again my clean-cut, professionally dressed brother with an Italian surname was once detained and interrogated for hours at a Canadian airport because his name closely resembled that of a suspected terrorist on their no-fly list. I guess there’s a branch of the family we don’t know about.

I have dealt with this issue by purchasing a travel-laptop. On it, I only store those files I will absolutely need while traveling.  If it gets seized, damaged, lost, or stolen, the harm is minimal; my regular laptop is waiting for me back home. If you do this, you can carry along any confidential data you may need on a thumb-drive (hopefully they don’t seize that as well!) or make use cloud storage to access your data from anywhere in the world.

Happy travels.

What’s Bugging You? Is Parental Spying Increasing Millennials’ Tolerance for Surveillance?

It’s the sort of thing we would have expected the Soviets to do if they had survived into the new millennia: intercept laptop deliveries   and install malware   so they can spy on users. For those of us Baby Boomers who grew up during the cold war when we condemned the enemy for spying on its citizens,  intrusions of this nature are  untenable. However, I wonder if the millennials have been partially inoculated against feeling that same level of rage when they’re being monitored. A growing number of parents are keeping a close eye on their teens by installing camcorders in their rooms, tracking their every movement by way of their phones’ GPS devices, and demanding their children’s Facebook and E-Mail passwords so that they can read what they’re posting and what they’re receiving.

laptop

A teenage boy and longtime family friend recently posted a plea on his Facebook page for his friends to be careful with their comments.  “My parents read everything I post and if they don’t like it they make me take it down. If they don’t like what my friends write, they tell me to unfriend them.”

Some parents have even installed  the same type of spyware on their children’s computers that the NSA is installing on  computers-in-transit: a program which allows the voyeur to monitor what is being typed on the user’s screen in real time.  These young people will either become anaesthetized to those in power looking over their shoulder  or they will find ever newer and more creative ways to elude surveillance.

When I recently had lunch with a university student who is majoring in a foreign language, she told me she would   eventually like to work for U. S. intelligence. “Maybe I’ll become a translator and I’ll get to be one of those people who listens in on everyone’s phone calls. I know it’s wrong but it would be an interesting job.”

Indeed.

What’s bugging  you and your office these days?  It might just be the NSA. Good luck finding a pest control company to take care of that.

(Photo courtesy of pdphoto.org)