NSA using third-party countries to tap into broadband cables worldwide

19 Jun 2014

The NSA operations centre

According to new documents released by whistleblower Edward Snowden, the US National Security Agency (NSA) is using third-party countries to gain access to thousands of fibre-optic cables in their jurisdictions.

Using the codename RAMPART-A, the NSA would work with these third-party countries to attempt to intercept as much of the world’s online communications as possible, says the Danish privacy news website Dagbladet Information.

In total, there are reportedly 33 countries working with the US in facilitating this spying, with many of the links pointing towards co-operation with Germany and Denmark.

Snowden has said that of the documents released recently, RAMPART-A is considered one of the ‘crown jewels’ in the NSA and was part of the NSA’s Special Source Operations (SSO) division. It is also understood that contributing countries to the programme have used the cover of their manipulation of the lines as being part of a Comsat project.


The number of access point fibre cables to and from the US and Europe is limited enough to be monitored with relative ease

In terms of the benefits to the 33 countries, and the cost to the American taxpayer, US$91m was spent on fibre cable access internationally, US$76.55m of which was spent on the RAMPART-A programme which provided access to about 3 terabits of raw information every second, a tall order for anyone to interpret.

Speaking to Dagbladet Information, security expert and technologist Bruce Schneier said the practicality of accessing these reams of fibre cables is not difficult, as the access points are rather limited. “If you look at a map of the internet, there are surprisingly few trunks. Most data flows through a surprisingly small number of choke points. If you get access to them, you get access to everything.

“The goal must be to cover most of the world with as few access points as possible. A lot of internet traffic flows through the US but a bunch doesn’t. So you’re going to look in places in the world where the data is, if not in the US.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic