In this article, we will present insight to the realistic possibilities of Internet mass surveillance. When talking about the threat of Internet surveillance, the common argument is that there is so much traffic that any one conversation or email won’t be picked up unless there is reason to suspect those concerned; it is impossible that “they” can listen to us all.
This argument assumes that there is a scarcity of resources and motivation required for mass surveillance. The truth is that motivation and resources are directly connected. If the resources are inexpensive enough, then the motivations present are sufficient to use them. This is visible in the economic effect of supply availability increasing the demand. The effect is that since it is more easily done, it will be done more readily. Another fault in the above argument is that it assumes that there is only all-or-nothing surveillance, which is incorrect.
I. Resource Requirements
II. Methods of Post-Tap and Offsite Analysis
IV. Threat Assessment
V. Clandestine Intelligence Gathering
VI. End Notes
VII. Q & A
VIII. About the Authors
I. RESOURCE REQUIREMENTS
It is important to break down the resources required and methods available as well as the means of surveillance in order to understand what realistic threat mass surveillance of digital communication is.
The resources required are Access, Storage, Traffic, and Analysis. In this paper, we are speaking about digital communications, and these methods do not fully apply to purely analog communication, such as POTS (normal telephone service).
Surveillence requires access to the communication to be surveilled. Data today is transmitted via copper cable lines, fiber-optics, directed micro-wave communication, broadcast radio (WiMAX, WiFi etc.), satellite, and a few other arcane methods. The most profitable transmission media for surveillance, by far, are fiber, broadcast, directed micro-wave, and satellite. Fiber provides the benefit of large amounts of data from a single “cable.” Broadcast radio provides the benefit of non-physical accessibility. Directed micro-wave is easily acquired through classic stand-in-the-middle listening. Satellite provides a very big footprint, where one needs only to be standing near the receiver of the transmission.
Fiber cables provide the most interesting targets for surveillance. Almost all international communication eventually goes over a few particular fiber lines, so this is where the tapping is focused.
This is a practice far different from the UK / USA Echelon system of the 1980s, which operated mostly by targeting direct micro-wave and satellite transmissions, because international fiber-optic lines were more rare. Today, tapping into fiber is easily accomplished through a variety of methods: splicing the fiber-optic line, connecting to the repeaters, or tapping into the endpoint routers, and through even more esoteric methods, like bending the fiber and detecting stray “ghost” photons1. Tapping in most cases is purely passive, which means two things. First, the signals are being listened to and not intercepted or modified. Second, surveillance-induced artifacts are non-trivial to detect by the endpoint, which means there is no “click” on the phone to tell you that someone is listening in. This is especially true in digital communications espionage, which is the focus of this paper.