The American Telephone and Telegraph Company, more familiarly known as AT&T, has a network that is one of the most robust in the world. Even before the age of the Internet, this company managed to carry voice and data communications across the United States from any point to any other point.
When the age of digital telephone networks arrived, the AT&T core network was drastically upgraded to carry voice calls not as analogue signals but as digitized information. As further development of the now global Internet continued, the demands for data bandwidth grew geometrically. This development continued at ever greater speeds as the wireline networks became part of a truly vast Internet consisting of wired and wireless devices, computers, telemetry transmitters, radio and television stations and all points on the World Wide Web and every other internet access portal.
As of March 2018, some 197 petabytes of data flow across AT&T’s network every day. A “petabyte” is 1015 bytes of data, equal to 1000 Terabytes (think about your own computer’s hard drives today which usually rate about one or two terabytes of storage. This daily stream is equivalent to streaming 60 billion average sized mp3 files per day.
Such a throughput is a great resource for surveillance.
The NSA has taken advantage of that resource in great measure. What is more, the NSA didn’t have to build much to do this; all it had to do was make some modifications and upgrades to the existing network infrastructure.
According to this article from The Intercept, there are about eight structures in the United States alone that are data gathering points for the NSA to conduct its eavesdropping operations. The buildings are known and recognized by many people in their respective cities as being AT&T switching facilities, but until recently the existence of all eight had not been verified:
Last year, The Intercept highlighted a likely NSA facility in New York City’s Lower Manhattan. Now, we are revealing for the first time a series of other buildings across the U.S. that appear to serve a similar function, as critical parts of one of the world’s most powerful electronic eavesdropping systems, hidden in plain sight.
“It’s eye-opening and ominous the extent to which this is happening right here on American soil,” said Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “It puts a face on surveillance that we could never think of before in terms of actual buildings and actual facilities in our own cities, in our own backyards.”
The Intercept goes on to explain a little of how this matrix works:
While network operators would usually prefer to send data through their own networks, often a more direct and cost-efficient path is provided by other providers’ infrastructure. If one network in a specific area of the country is overloaded with data traffic, another operator with capacity to spare can sell or exchange bandwidth, reducing the strain on the congested region. This exchange of traffic is called “peering” and is an essential feature of the internet.
Because of AT&T’s position as one of the US’s leading telecommunications companies, it has a large network that is frequently used by other providers to transport their customers’ data. Companies that “peer” with AT&T include the American telecommunications giants Sprint, Cogent Communications, and Level 3, as well as foreign companies such as Sweden’s Telia, India’s Tata Communications, Italy’s Telecom Italia, and Germany’s Deutsche Telekom.
AT&T currently boasts 19,500 “points of presence” in 149 countries where internet traffic is exchanged. But only eight of the company’s facilities in the US offer direct access to its “common backbone” – key data routes that carry vast amounts of emails, internet chats, social media updates, and internet browsing sessions. These eight locations are among the most important in AT&T’s global network. They are also highly valued by the NSA, documents indicate.
The data exchange between AT&T and other networks initially takes place outside AT&T’s control, sources said, at third-party data centers that are owned and operated by companies such as California’s Equinix. But the data is then routed – in whole or in part – through the eight AT&T buildings, where the NSA taps into it. By monitoring what it calls the “peering circuits” at the eight sites, the spy agency can collect “not only AT&T’s data, they get all the data that’s interchanged between AT&T’s network and other companies,” according to Mark Klein, a former AT&T technician who worked with the company for 22 years. It is an efficient point to conduct internet surveillance, Klein said, “because the peering links, by the nature of the connections, are liable to carry everybody’s traffic at one point or another during the day, or the week, or the year.”
Indeed, to the telecommunications engineer, the maps shown here are simply mundane maps of a very large network. But the maps’ simplicity and openness belie the powerful facilities for eavesdropping that such a network provides. Here on the Duran, this news piece highlighted how private industry was able to successfully eavesdrop on private citizens through their cell phones. Ever notice how your phone’s internet browser often pops up ads for things it seems you were just talking about? That is often this eavesdropping capability in action.
As with all applications of technology, the good and the bad are mixed. Certainly the NSA’s ability to intercept threats cannot be undervalued. But for some, the Orwellian spectre of constant surveillance may well inspire some to turn their phones completely off and go “off the grid” from time to time.
In the Oliver Stone movie “Snowden”, we see a glimpse into how far the surveillance society can take things.
Privacy is possible, but few of us truly have it.