Why the NSA has access to 80% of online communication even if Google doesn’t have a “back door”

June 7, 2013
June 7, 2013

Google CEO Larry Page just said in a blog post that Google has never heard of a program called “PRISM,” and that the US government does not have “direct access” to Google’s servers, as alleged by recent media reports. Assuming that the PowerPoint slides published yesterday by the Guardian and Washington Post and purporting to be from the US National Security Agency aren’t simply fake, how then is it possible that the NSA has broad access to Google’s data without Google ever giving it up?

The answer, says 30-year NSA veteran turned whistleblower William Binney, is simple: Since at least 2001, the US government has had access to all the internet communication passing through at least one and possibly more fiber-optic hubs in the US. That would give the NSA access to a vast amount of data without “direct access” to company servers.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that something more sinister doesn’t exist, says Binney; the NSA might have more than just peripheral access to some internet companies. Assuming that the NSA’s detection systems are placed only on major hubs for internet communication, as the one discovered in 2005 was, the NSA might be missing internet traffic that doesn’t travel through these hubs. So PRISM, hypothesizes Binney, might have been initiated in order to capture internet communications the NSA was not able to record already. (If such a system tapped directly into company servers, though, it would contradict Brin’s statement today.)

“I figure they could get 80% on what’s on the network and the other 20%, the companies [like Google and Facebook] have to fill in,” says Binney, who adds that these numbers are “just my estimate” based on what’s known about how much traffic flows through the Internet’s busiest hubs.

Binney also points out that, given the structure of the internet, the NSA is best equipped to spy on Americans, not foreigners, because the hubs it has access to are all in the US. Despite this fact, much of the world’s internet traffic travels through the US anyway, making it a uniquely advantageous place to put listening devices. US spy agencies have even warned that the gradual shift away from the US as the primary hub for internet communications could make it more difficult for them to eavesdrop.

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