According to reports US officials use a variety of tactics, including regulatory threats, to coerce foreign owners of undersea fiber to allow the NSA access for eavesdropping.

earthcomm US uses regulatory threats to secure access to undersea fiber for spying

The United States serves as the global router for most of the world’s internet traffic. Internet traffic takes the route of least resistance; the US has more fiber capacity going to more places than any other country.

The United States’ unique situation as switchboard for the world has allowed its spy agencies easy access to the world’s traffic for surveillance. When the fiber cables traversing the world are American, the US government can access them with ease as American telcos have proven willing to cooperate with government requests for surveillance — without concerted opposition.

But what happens when these undersea cables and landing stations are owned by foreign companies?

As the Washington Post reports, a squadron of lawyers called “Team Telecom” gets a call.

According to the Post, when Global Crossing, a telecommunications company being sold to China Netcom, a Chinese state-owned enterprise, and Singaporean telco arm Technologies Telemedia, asked for blessing from US regulators to approve the deal, they responded by saying it would only be approved under certain conditions.

Amongst those conditions, according to the Post, was that the company maintain a core team of Americans with security clearances that would handle surveillance requests, and it would also agree to situate its Network Operations Center in the US. The NOC could be visited by officials with 30 minutes notice as part of the deal, according to the Post.

Should the company put up a fight — and its unclear if it did — while Team Telecom’s lawyers were negotiating the deal, the FCC would not approve its cable licenses. The threat of having the FCC not approve, or delay, licenses presumably kept companies in-line and compliant with demands from Team Telecom.

The full extent of these agreements outlining the NSA’s access to undersea fiber optic cables is classified. For what its worth, the government maintains that its surveillance efforts are legal.

Source: Washington Post