Surveillance, submarines, global politics

May 1, 2002


Along-known selling point of fiber optics is that it either inhibits or prevents surveillance of communications. This particular aspect of fiber optics is now a line of political separation between the political aims of the European Union and those of the United States and potentially a line of conflict between the United States and China.

The EU takes comfort that fiber optics shields communications from surveillance. European Commission member Erkki Liikanen said in speech of Sept. 5, 2001: "The development in technologies can bring protection against surveillance. It is a comforting finding that...fibre-optic cables instead of satellites for transcontinental communications ha[ve] decreased the possibilities for large-scale routine interception....The Commission attaches the utmost importance to the respect of human rights and the respect of rules of law."

Limited access
Liikanen's remarks were prompted by the findings of the European Parliament's "Temporary Committee on the Echelon Interception System...Draft Report," issued in May 2001: "[T]he use of submarines for the routine surveillance of international telephone traffic can be ruled out. The new-generation fibre-optic cables use erbium lasers as regenerators [which prevent] interception by means of electromagnetic coupling"-meaning that for any fiber route where signals need amplification, the points of surveillance dwindle when optical amplifiers replace optoelectronic repeaters.

The report's author, Gerhard Schmid, quickly arrived at the obvious conclusion: Whether on land or undersea, fiber-optic routes having no need for signal amplification or using optical amplifiers exclusively can be tapped only at an "incoming or outgoing" optoelectronic terminus that happens to be in the eavesdropper's territory. Schmid said further: "[Non-European nations] have access only to a very limited proportion of [European] Internet communications transmitted by [fiber] cable...only a very small proportion of intra-European Internet communications are routed via the USA....A small proportion of intra-European communications are routed via a switch in London to which the British monitoring station GCHQ has access. The majority of [European] communications do not leave the continent...more than 95% of German Internet communications are routed via a switch in Frankfurt."

Now it is easy to see why the German and European Internets were convenient staging areas for the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States-the perpetrators' Internet traffic had a tiny chance of being surveilled by either the United States or United Kingdom, nations that lost citizens in the New York City attack. Liikanen's emphasis on "human rights" and respect for "rules of law" last September now looks more akin to misplaced delight about keeping American and British snoopers out of the EU communications system rather than support for principles that should govern and pervade Internet use.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government is determined to overcome fiber's apparent invulnerability to surveillance. In December, the House of Representatives introduced H.R. 3555, The United States Security Act. Section 311, Secure Our Fiber Optic Infrastructure, reads: "the Secretary of Commerce...shall transmit to Congress a report...[that] assess[es] but [is] to [the] use of sophisticated techniques to exploit active fiber-optic cable, to extract data or degrade or permanently darken fiber over time."

According to the Washington Post, the National Security Agency "is known to be hard at work trying to gain access to fiber-optic cables" and the U.S. Navy will spend "$1 billion to retrofit its premier spy submarine, the USS Jimmy Carter" to get access to deep-sea fiber routes. But the Navy is not the only group interested in deep-sea capability. In June 1998, the House Subcommittee on International Economic Policy heard testimony from the Director of the Center for Security Policy, Frank J. Gaffney, who complained about the Clinton administration's trade policy: "[T]he People's Republic of China received sophisticated micro-bathymetry equipment, 6,000-meter-capable video, and side-scan sonar systems from the United States. This equipment is intended to be used for deep-seabed mining, but we will likely see these technologies being instead used to advance China's anti-submarine warfare capability and to help the PRC discover undersea bastions in which to conceal and operate their ballistic-missile submarines."

Proxy fight?

Protecting, tapping, or destroying fiber routes may one day be de rigueur for military planners. Perhaps that explains the shadow boxing over Global Crossing's (GX's) deep-sea assets. The press has treated GX as just another fiber-network using political influence and trick accounting to mislead the market

before filing bankruptcy in January. Poor GX, an unwanted ugly duckling until Singapore and Hong Kong business interests came courting in early February, offering $750 million cash and debt restructuring-a good deal for the buyers.

At about the same time, the slightest nuance of strategic consideration slipped into public view. The New York Times floated a story that GX was to receive a $450-million contract with the Department of Defense for "connecting 6,000 scientists working on military projects," but that a transfer of ownership to foreign interests would either halt the project or cause the DoD to use another network. In early March, Al Gore's Technology Group of Los Angeles announced a counter offer that would give "substantially more value" to GX's creditors than the offer from Singapore Technologies Telemedia and the Hong Kong conglomerate, Hutchison Whampoa, both of whom hold minority stakes in GX.

For a very low price, someone is going to acquire a set of undersea fiber routes that crisscross the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and connect over 20 nations and perhaps resell or lease the network at a handsome profit to another party that could have its very own undersea communications network and training ground. The bankruptcy court had set April 23 as the deadline to receive proposals to take over the now-bankrupt GX.

Stephen N. Brown writes on public policy in telecommunications. He can be contacted by e-mail at [email protected] or telephone: 615-399-1239.