back to article Spies would need superpowers to tap undersea cables

The Register has found itself subject to a certain amount of criticism for this author's scepticism regarding whether the NSA has been snooping on optical fibre cables by cutting them. Glenn Greenwald's recent “NSA cut New Zealand's cables” story is illustrative of credibility problems that surround the ongoing Edward Snowden …

  1. Christian Berger

    No need to splice fibres to evesdrop

    Splicing fibres would be far to easy to detect. What you do instead is bend the fibre to tap it. Or you can just tap a splice... which is probably much less protected. You could probably even do it on a well monitored cable if you do it slowly enough. It's probably much simpler than splicing, too.

    So yes, there would probably be a lot more easy ways to get to the data, but tapping undersea cables isn't infeasible, the technology has been done for cable on land, and undersea copper connections have been eavesdropped on before.

    1. Ole Juul

      Re: No need to splice fibres to evesdrop

      there would probably be a lot more easy ways to get to the data

      Exactly, but they're going to keep talking about the impossible ways until this blows over.

    2. JeffyPoooh

      "600 metres, the submarine ... ... 1,000 metres."

      What's to prevent the USS Jimmy Carter from opening a hatch, lowering a 500m cable, dragging it around a bit (precisely as the cable repair ships do) until they snag the cable, then winch it up (precisely as the cable repair ships do) into the Top Secret cable tapping room, etc? I realize that this proposal would require the addition of a 500m cable and winch to the USS Jimmy Carter, and that might be technically extremely difficult.... ((Rolls-Eyes.))

      I suppose that one might argue that it would be equally impossible to fetch a sunk Russian submarine from the bottom of the sea too. In that case, one might be about half-right.

    3. Peter Fairbrother 1

      Re: No need to splice fibres to evesdrop

      Yes. Plus there is no service interruption if the cable is bent.

      The USS Jimmy Carter deploys ROVs to find and expose the cable. Then they lower a shirt-sleeve-environment tapping room on a wire to the tapping point (why would they need to tap the cables inside the submarine?), and Vodaphone / Verizon / whoever subcontracters do the actual bending and tapping.

      Best place to bend-tap is just after a repeater where the signal is strong and the bend-tap is least likely to be noticed. Best repeater is probably the first in the chain, which will be nearer land collection points and at lower depth.

      Looking at a map of cables, two interesting places for GCHQ/NSA to tap cables - cables run by furruiners whose traffic they might want to look at, and which could not be tapped by a UK/US legal requirement - are in the Eastern Med and the Gulf. They would want some sort of land stations, like the GCHQ outstations at Seeb in Oman and Ayios Nikolaos in Cyprus, nearby to make backhaul easier.

      As for NSA, their interests might also include Fortaleza in North Brazil, the British Virgin Islands and a couple of locations in the China sea and Sea of Japan. I imagine BVI would not be a problem, I do not know whether they have anywhere suitable for the other locations.

      But they might use buoys for backhaul instead - a highly-directional high-capacity laser transmitter from a buoy which is raised say once per pass to a satellite could be made almost impossible to spot. The part which gets raised above the surface might not need to be more than an inch or so in diameter.

      The USS Jimmy Carter then changes the very large batteries left on or buried under the seabed every ten years or so.

      If I may quote Robert Morris, former Chief Scientist at NSA: "Never underestimate the attention, risk, money and time that an opponent will put into reading traffic." I think the author of the article is guilty of that.

    4. CheesyTheClown

      Re: No need to splice fibres to evesdrop

      I was going to say the same. You can easily side tap a fibre. To maximize SnR, it's best to do it really close to the source if possible. A simple machine which consists of a small scale industrial ceramic shielded hole saw surrounded by a silicone sealed rubber boot can easily penetrate the shielding of the fibers and allow insertion of a tap. I don't think it would cost me more than $50,000 in development to build a deep sea robot for tapping 208 fibres with minimal loss and zero downtime. With $200,000, I could probably manage multi-wavelength as well.

      1. Peter Fairbrother 1

        Another method

        Another method is the teeny drop of hydrofluoric acid (HF). This needs to be automated to be hard-to-detect.

        You remove the cover of the fiber, then cover it with wax, leaving a teeny hole on one side. You set up the HF-resistant optical tap pointing at the hole, then immerse it and the cable in hydrofluoric acid, which eats the outer layer of the fiber away, all the while monitoring the light which escapes from the fiber. When you get just enough light so you can read the traffic, you neutralise the hydrofluoric acid.

        ( The eventual clear plastic replacement for the HF liquid needs to have the same refractive index as the HF - but it is easy to change the RI of the HF )

        This had the advantage over bending that the tapped light comes from a teeny source, making it more efficient and thus harder to spot. Also, you don't need to create enough slack to bend, which can be a problem in underwater cables.

    5. NoneSuch Silver badge

      Re: No need to splice fibres to evesdrop

      The Americans (Via Howard Hughes) raised a Russian submarine from the open ocean with no one knowing. Where there is a will, there is a way. I tend to bet on Snowden when there is doubt in the air.

      1. JeffyPoooh

        Re: No need to splice fibres to evesdrop

        "...raised about one-half of a Russian submarine from the open ocean..."

        There, I fixed it for you.

        That's what I was referring to above; "half right", get it?

    6. Vic

      Re: No need to splice fibres to evesdrop

      What you do instead is bend the fibre to tap it.

      That's probably not going to be sufficient to get usable data out; you'd likely have to shave off the cladding.

      This is not impossible - it's part of the construction of a WDM - but it's bloody difficult in a live system.

      For my money, an undersea tap is unlikely - it's so much easier to tap at the shore. But that doesn't make it an impossibility.


      1. Phil W

        Re: No need to splice fibres to evesdrop

        "What you do instead is bend the fibre to tap it."

        " you'd likely have to shave off the cladding.

        This is not impossible"

        Am I the only one who read the article and/or has seen the inside of deep ocean cable before?

        Aside from the fact that those heavily armoured, extremely thick, multi-layered cables of fibre, poly and steel will have a limited amount of bend in them (which may not be sufficient bend for this type of tap) you're still having to cut through the high voltage electrical feed to get to fibre pairs where you've bent it.

        Assuming that there's redundancy in those electrical cables and cutting them at one side for your splice doesn't take out one or more repeaters you've still got the danger and inherent problems in cutting through a live high voltage cable, whether that be a diver under the water or inside a hypothetical winch equipped submarine.

  2. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

    The big advantage of working under water ...

    ... is the enormous cost. You could hide all sorts of dodgy expenses in a budget like that.

    The power supply is really easy to deal with. Send a fishing boat out to drop a sharpened anchor on one side of the cable and sail to the other side. You then have plenty of time to install your tap while the cable's owner dispatches a repair ship.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: The big advantage of working under water ...

      Egyptian ship owners in Alexandria bay are cheap, efficient and capable of cutting more than one cable at once. No idea if they used a sharpened anchor last time. I would not be surprised if they did.

    2. Ole Juul

      Re: The big advantage of working under water ...

      plenty of time to install your tap while the cable's owner dispatches a repair ship

      Is there any history of the cable being broken? Surely that information is publicly available, and it would be of much interest in this discussion.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    NSA couldn't possibly have spliced the undersea cables ...

    ... simply because the author of the article can't think of a way it could have been done.

    Just because you can't figure out how it was done, that does not prove it was not done or that it is impossible to do. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

    Not a tenable position, sir.

    1. Anonymous Coward

      Re: NSA couldn't possibly have spliced the undersea cables ...

      Many difficult things become a lot easier with an $11 billion annual budget.

    2. Tom 13

      Re: NSA couldn't possibly have spliced the undersea cables ...

      The point of the article is that NSA are really smart people instead of dumb arses like the Greenwald. Really smart people are also usually really lazy people, at least in the sense of they will do the least work required to get the same reward. There are far easier ways to tap the fiber than getting a sub, digging up the cable, and splicing it.

      For starters, since it is highly technical work and the NSA has some of the best people doing that work, it would be far easier to put an NSA guy on the crew laying the cable an tap it as it is laid. No messy splicing required.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: NSA couldn't possibly have spliced the undersea cables ...

        > Really smart people are also usually really lazy people

        [ ... ]

        > it would be far easier to put an NSA guy on the crew laying the cable an tap [ ... ]


        Really nice generalizations based on purely subjective opinions, emphatically stated as facts.

        There is a difference between opinion and fact. To a certain degree, everyone is entitled to their own opinions. Not to their own facts.

        In this particular case, the relevant fact being: neither you, nor the author of this article, know what NSA did or did not do. The fundamental principle of "those who talk don't know and those who know don't talk" applies here, to both of you.

        The author speculates that it couldn't have been done because he doesn't know how it could've been done, therefore it cannot be done. You speculate based on some vaporous general-purpose assertions such as "smart people are lazy" and "there are easier ways of tapping the fiber than using a sub".

        None of your general-purpose assertions proves, or creates any speculative inference in support of this article's initial stated premise: that NSA did not tap the underwater fiber optic cable because doing so would require some undefined "super-powers".

    3. Olius

      Re: NSA couldn't possibly have spliced the undersea cables ...

      ...made even less tenable by certain odd facts, such as "...10Kv DC...distance of 45Km between repeaters..."

      Maybe this was a typo, or maybe it is true and I don't know my electronics well enough. But, IIRC, there is a very good reason DC isn't used to carry power long distances: It loses a lot of power en route due to the resistance of the material.

      This is why AC is used, and it is used at a very high voltage and low (relative) current, as it can easily travel 45Km with little loss of power. Low current produces less heat, but the same total amount of power is being transmitted by being converted from current to voltage.

      Make of this "fact" what you will; I think this is a fairly basic error and makes me wonder about the rest of the article. I'm not convinced either way about whether the subject of the arcticle happened or not, I'm simply being cynical.

      As others have said, just because you can't picture how it is done, doesn't mean it isn't done, and an error in facts and resulting logic like this perhaps shows the author isn't best placed to extrapolate from the rest of these "facts".

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: NSA couldn't possibly have spliced the undersea cables ...

        "But, IIRC, there is a very good reason DC isn't used to carry power long distances: It loses a lot of power en route due to the resistance of the material.

        This is why AC is used, and it is used at a very high voltage"

        You're wrong. I spent years working on the terminal stations of submarine cables. Power feeding is always high voltage DC for a number of sound engineering reasons. You also seem unaware that the standard these days for any new long distance power transmission network is DC - like the UK-France power grid interconnections.

        I'm wondering why you'd so thoroughly rubbish the author's article on the basis of a 'fact' you made up. It would only have taken you a minute to check.

      2. Vic

        Re: NSA couldn't possibly have spliced the undersea cables ...

        maybe it is true and I don't know my electronics well enough

        Errr - yes. Sorry...

        IIRC, there is a very good reason DC isn't used to carry power long distances: It loses a lot of power en route due to the resistance of the material.

        That's nothing to do with it being DC - it's to do with the current flowing in the conductor.

        For a fixed-resistance conductor (which it isn't, really, but this will show the effect), the instantaneous power drop over that conductor is i^2R - so doubling the current quaduples the power loss. This is true of AC or DC flow. To counteract this loss, the supply voltage is very high, to reduce the current (for any given load, the power delivery is the product of the voltage and the current, so doubling the voltage halves the current requirement, leading to a quarter of the losses).

        The reason AC is usually used is that it is very easy to convert from a high-voltage supply to a more manageable, lower-voltage one with a simple transformer. It has been this way for a very long time, which is why AC is so popular for distribution. DC is much harder to deal with unless you're prepared to accept *massive* losses (which we're not). Modern electronics make it possible, but this is a comparatively recent development compared to the history of power distribution.

        I think this is a fairly basic error and makes me wonder about the rest of the article

        Yeah, it's not an error...


        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          AC <-> DC and power distribution

          Just one thing: high voltage DC is how you send power for long distances under the sea, to avoid the massive induction losses you'd get if you used AC.

          It's been practical to convert DC to AC and back again on the megawatt scale since the very early days of AC power distribution. What you use is motor-generator sets, a technique that's only recently been superseded by heavy-duty semiconductors.

      3. cray74

        Re: NSA couldn't possibly have spliced the undersea cables ...

        "But, IIRC, there is a very good reason DC isn't used to carry power long distances: It loses a lot of power en route due to the resistance of the material."

        DC is used to carry power over long distances, and it shines (so to speak) underwater because it has lower losses than AC.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    This article "glanced" over the repeaters

    Biggest problem with the idea of tapping mid-sea is how to carry and process data away. There is no way in hell you can drop a fully blown probe system capable of analyzing traffic and isolating what you want down to continental depths. So you have to run _ANOTHER_ cable to a suitable location passing _ALL_ traffic there. There are only two locations worldwide for which this scenario is realistic - Mediterranean and Gulf. Everywhere else your "home base" is out of reach.

    As far as Med and Gulf - the cable density, distances, depths etc there justify tapping at repeaters (that is how this is done, if ever, by the way) and running a short length of cable to your "home base" in a "friendly" Gulf or NATO state.

    1. maffski

      Re: This article "glanced" over the repeaters

      'Biggest problem with the idea of tapping mid-sea is how to carry and process data away.'

      Not really, just take an exclusive rent on one of the other fibres in the bundle, clone the data, encrypt, and send it back up that fibre.

      In fact, if I was running a morally dubious intelligence agency (I'm available at reasonable rates) I'd infiltrate the cable laying ships - replace a repeater with one to copy the data I'm interested in and send it back up my private wire(s) in the bundle. Job done.

      You don't care about all the data, so filter in the tap and you might only need one fibre to hook out everything of interest in the others.

      1. Kernel

        Re: This article "glanced" over the repeaters

        If you knew anything about submarine cables you would be aware that any fiber cable with an economic capacity doesn't have repeaters, they have amplifiers.

        The amplifiers have no ability to extract any data from the analogue payload signal, they don't even know - or care - what the bandwidth of each wavelength is. The only signal an amplifier can interact with, other than making it louder, is the supervisory channel which terminates and is re-originated at each wmp - and that's on a separate wavelength to those used for the payload.

        As for those who want to install a sneaky underwater tap - all the DWDM equipment I've worked that is suitable for submarine use has the ability to enable alarms that are designed to specifically monitor for un-authorised (by the cable operator) tapping of the fibers.

  5. dan1980

    Possible; not likely.

    We have learned that things many once considered too expensive to be practical* have indeed been implemented. The MASSIVE amounts of money thrown at the NSA to undertake any and all surveillance and collection is obscene and many people erred by vastly underestimating the money the Government was willing to spend to create a surveillance state.

    At a basic level, tapping undersea fibre cables is really just a refinement of the process that was used during the cold war - park a special sub above the cable and get to work. That 'work' would of course be ridiculously exacting and require hundreds of millions of dollars of customisations to a submarine but there is absolutely nothing outside the realm of possibility.

    Once you assume that there is a submarine so equipped as to enable work on a cable bundle in a suitable (i.e. dry and powered) environemnt, only two questions remain. The first is how they have managed to extract usable data from a fibre without interruption or detection and the second is how they are collecting that data.

    Of all the difficulties Richard has raised, the question of collecting the data is actually the biggest because 'tapping' a cable involves copying the data stream somewhere else.

    In the now well-known operation during the Cold War to tap a Russian cable, divers went back periodically to swap tapes out. The amount of data flowing through modern undersea fibre links is not trivial to capture and your only two options are to have a device on site that records and is then collected periodically or to run your own cables back to home base.

    Laying your own fibre back is HUGELY expensive - much more so than the tapping operations themselves and so is presumably a bridge too far. That leaves on-site collection which, while cheaper, comes with numerous tricky problems, such as the size of the storage you deploy, the electricity to power it (I don't think you could do it from the supplied power of the cable without someone noticing) and, of course, the continual collection of the data from all these taps.

    You could reduce the collection requirements by recording only data that matches certain criteria but that would require real-time analysis of quite impressive power, which of course increases the cost and difficulty of installing and powering the device!

    HOWEVER, there is no indication that the NSA would undertake such expensive programs where there were significantly cheaper and easier options available. The best option is simply to get the cooperation of the cable operators. If you have that then there is no need to deploy submarines for installation and collection rounds.

    It is possible that the NSA are able to tap undersea fibres without the providers knowing.

    However, it is far more likely that the providers do know about this and, if so, this would make it pointless to perform the collection undersea.

    * - Such as quoting the costs of some outrageous amount of data storage.

    1. Dan 55 Silver badge

      Re: Possible; not likely.

      Is cost really a limiting factor when it comes to these kinds of programs? Nothing till now suggests it is.

    2. JeffyPoooh

      Re: Possible; not likely.

      Explain this: the USS Jimmy Carter

      1. dan1980

        Re: Possible; not likely.


        Ahhhh, that might just be the "special sub" I was referring to in my post . . .

        : )

        1. JeffyPoooh

          Re: Possible; not likely.

          And yet the "special sub" exists, as more than an assumption. It has a name, USS Jimmy Carter. The point aimed at those claiming all this is "not likely" instead of "I don't understand". It's widely accepted to be a sub for tapping undersea cables, so what the heck is all this article and doubt about?

          I can't explain orbital mechanics, and yet the Saturn V existed.

          1. dan1980

            Re: Possible; not likely.


            Yes, I know the sub exists - that's why I mentioned it in my post : )

            (Just not by name.)

            And, to clear up all this - the 'not likely' part is me saying that the CLAIM of Snowden is not likely, not that tapping undersea fibre is not likely.

            For a refresher, the CLAIM that Richard is questioning is that the NSA, with the help and cooperation of the NZ government tapped undersea cables to spy on NZ citizens en masse.

            If you have the cooperation of the local government, there really isn't a reason why you would need to go to the trouble of doing all this. As Richard has very rightly pointed out, there are easier, land-based ways to accomplish the goal and they will yield better results!

            You, and most others here are arguing that the NSA have the budget and capability to tap undersea fibre. I don't question that at all. It is not technically impossible or even impractical, merely expensive. As I said, myself, many have erred in underestimating what the US Government will spend on these projects.

            But, that is not the claim being examined and questioned.

          2. Nathanial Wapcaplet

            Re: Possible; not likely.

            Eh? orbital mechanics? Wouldn't it be simple to have a garage on earth or the moon, (relevant planet) and house them and their tools there rather than floating around in space?

            err, hang on, maybe I misunderstood that

  6. Trevor_Pott Gold badge

    Richard: all of your points boil down not to "it's impossible to tap an undersea cable" but rather "it's incredibly expensive to tap an undersea cable reliably and quickly enough not to get caught.

    May I offer some thoughts, from just underneath my tinfoil hat?

    Sever the cable at point A. While they are running around trying to fix it, insert a tap at point B. This gives you time to tap it. Your costs drop quite a bit. "Deliriously expensive" becomes "within the realm of possibility for a black ops budget".

    Now the question of "how the hell do you get the data out" arises. May I suggest that it might well be possible to put a widget in the "point B" tap that:

    1) Is protected to substantial depths

    2) Is some form of ridiculously expensive computer in it's own right

    3) Does basic inline analysis of traffic

    4) Sends anything interesting it finds down the fibre via traffic injection to the NSA*

    5) May have a radio link (ULF?) to be updated by the appropriate spook ship that parks on top of it.

    6) May even be able to be raised and plugged into a bank of systems on a spook ship to provide real-time streaming into the ship on occasions where it's required.

    A tap doesn't have to mirror all traffic at all times to be an effective tool. A tap doesn't have to be accessible 100% of the time to be an effective tool. A tap doesn't have to be a perfect filter to catch interesting things and a tap doesn't have to store all data forever to be an effective tool.

    It could just be the equivalent of a plan old-school wiretap capability, but set up in such a way as to be able to bypass all that pesky "jurisdictional cooperation" and "the other guy knowing what you're up to" stuff.

    The presumption that these taps exist to spy on the hoi polloi of a country is probably nuts. It's 100% more rational to expect that the NSA would work with most countries to make that happen.

    But a tap in order to spy on those in power in the target country is a different story entirely. That needs done without the target country knowing. And what better way for them to think that you don't have that capability than to work both ends and establish a local on-shore tapping capability (which, I am sure, the host country knows how to route around or turn off)?

    Tapping communications that someone else knows are insecure is pointless and a waste of money. Finding the means of communication they believe are secure, well...

    ...I wholeheartedly believe the NSA would gladly pour hundreds of millions of dollars into that. After all...that's what they are actually paid to do.

    *Before you start talking about security and "they'd notice that", I don't think they would. Who is going to take the two routers on either end of an undersea cable and lock down the routers to the MAC address of the router on the other end? You control the cable, and thinking that any other MAC address would appear would be paranoid. Do you MAC lock the cables running in your house? Do you run traffic sniffers on your hardwired-only networks to see if someone has tapped it and is injecting traffic? Unless you have some serious tinfoil hattery going on, don't.

    1. dan1980


      I think we are more or less on the same wavelength here but, as I said, I still think that collection is the main issue. Yes, there are options but I believe that the implications of these options don't really match the what one might suspect as the purpose of the exercise.

      This is not to say that is couldn't or wouldn't (or doesn't) happen, as I think I make clear in my post. I believe it is not even close to outside the realm of the possible. For me, it's about weighing up the factors and seeing whether this is likely.

      One thing we have seen is that the NSA seems to get ore targeted information by getting closer to the source but backs this up by much larger-scale 'dragnet'-style collections.

      The most important point to keep in mind, however, is that the NSA apparently did this WITH THE FULL COOPERATION OF THE NEW ZEALAND GOVERNMENT. That is the claim being made. Not that they have selectively tapped undersea fibre in order to spy on their allies' governments, but that one of those governments worked with them to collect data on their citizens.

      The context of this announcement is around the NZ elections and proving that the current NZ government is in cahoots with the NSA and lying about spying on NZ citizens. If the revelation was that the NSA was spying on the government itself then that really doesn't serve the purpose. There is the continuing saga for Kim Dotcom and his fight against the NZ government and especially their alleged (though very likely) collusion with the US to subvert local laws.

      It seems that you are arguing a different point, which is that the NSA could well tap undersea fibre for the purpose of spying on other governments.

      On that, I think we can agree far more readily because this is information that the NSA cannot get easily in other ways or through other agreements.

      I have nothing but the highest respect for Richard - he is, and has been for many years, an outstanding journalist who presses his points and works hard to get to the heart of matters and never just regurgitates party lines. None of that means he can;t be wrong but in this instance I think it's important to keep the original claim in mind - that the NZ government worked with the NSA to do spy on its citizens.

      And, with that in mind, Richard's assertion that there are easier and therefore MUCH cheaper and more comprehensive avenues available should be assessed favourably.

      Perhaps the NSA does indeed tap these lines AS WELL, in order to target the NZ government specifically but that is not the claim being made and challenged.

      1. Trevor_Pott Gold badge

        "It seems that you are arguing a different point, which is that the NSA could well tap undersea fibre for the purpose of spying on other governments."

        Yup. I'm not arguing for or against the NSA tapping the specific NSA cable in question. I have no idea if they've done that. And I don't know why they wouldn't just tap the US end of the damned thing and be done with it.

        I am arguing that the idea of tapping an undersea cable - if it was determined that there was a practicable need - is not outrageous. That's all.

        1. dan1980



          Oh good; I hate it when we fight. Also, apologies for the likely numerous typos. I spilt red wine on my keyboard and it's playing up. What I didn't spill, I drank so that may be accounting for a measure of the problem as well . . .

        2. Dan 55 Silver badge
          Black Helicopters

          "And I don't know why they wouldn't just tap the US end of the damned thing and be done with it."

          I assumed it was to be able to tap most of the rest of the world by tapping the traffic going in and out of the 5Is. There's traffic which NZ gets that the US doesn't.

          1. Trevor_Pott Gold badge

            But why would the NSA need to tap an underwater cable for that? Presumably NZ would allow them to do so and they could tap on land. You tap underwater only when you want to keep your activities hidden.

    2. dan1980


      I'll summarise my long post (though you of all people shouldn't begrudge me that!) with your own words:

      "The presumption that these taps exist to spy on the hoi polloi of a country is probably nuts."

      I agree. BUT, this is exactly the claim that is being made and the one that I believe Richard is questioning by saying that there are easier methods available. The claim was that the NSA was (and is) doing this with the assistance and cooperation of the NZ government in order to collect data on citizens.

      As you say, "probably nuts" to do this by tapping undersea cables.

    3. omnicent
      Black Helicopters

      Data rate of ULF to slurp data.... ~300baud, not really that useful...

      1. Primus Secundus Tertius

        Slurp rates

        Yes, ULF must be little better than hand driven Morse code.

        Even ultrasound, which makes far more sense in the ocean, yields only kilobits per second.

      2. Trevor_Pott Gold badge

        I suggested ULF not for slurping, but for issuing change commands to the widget in the water.

      3. Christian Berger

        ULF data rate

        "Data rate of ULF to slurp data.... ~300baud, not really that useful..."

        ULF is actually more like <<1 baud, and probably wouldn't even work down to the ground. What you do there is communicating via sound... which might get you something like 30 baud which may be enough to set a packet filter or to tell the harddisk to float up to the surface.

      4. Nathanial Wapcaplet

        Actually, it's worse, by orders of magnitude, not just not really that useful, even as a control channel. You can't just transmit VFT over a 3kHz channel width, the actual bandwidth at VLF is measured in Hertz or milliHertz, not kiloHertz. This in no way corresponds with the baseband frequencies of analogue telephone line comms systems, which is where the 300 baud assumptions are comings from. It's far, far worse than you imagine, making it impractical to use as a control system. It reduces the practicality to "on or off", which is effectively pointless, as optical losses are measured continuously.

        300 baud is do-able data rate for FEC transmissions in the HF and MF regions of the spectrum, even at LF. At these frequencies, the bandwidth of the antenna and associated matching system are high enough not to impact on the bandwidth of the channel.

        A radio transmitter with a wide bandwidth (as a percentage of the centre frequency) is so difficult to match that losses become untennable at even a few tens of herts from then centre frequency. This restricts the bandwidth of the channel (and hence the available shifts and data rates, even in the post-Shannon era, to very low rates indeed.

        Radiating a good 7kHz-wide voice signal at 150kHz is difficult, but consider that it's 2.4~ish% of the centre frequency. This example is the bottom of the "LongWave" broadcast spectrum. It's also comparable to some Loran and similar navigation services. Even that produces severe matching problems (trading bandwidth for Q, as Q decreases, bandwidth increases but so do the losses in the amplifier>antenna matching network.

        Now, make that 1.5 kHz, the middle of the ULF spectrum, taken as a purely mathematical example. Instead of 150 kHz and you have the same %-age off the centre frequency at only 700Hz from the centre frequency. It's this that limits the effective usable spectral bandwidth of the system, generating the signal isn't so much a a problem, but coupling it to an antenna is, given that the antenna efficiency itself will also be extremely low, due to the long wavelength at ULF. it's doesn't take long before several different power losses of 30dB add up to give you massive power loss. Try minimising antenna losses that by reducing resistive losses and ground losses (requiring massive ground mats and extremely long radial systems. Then you have to increase transmitter power to compensate the matching losses. Before long you're looking at 50kV insulators and several kiloamps of antenna current as you try to trade Q against bandwidth against losses against costs. There's a reason morse was used in the marine MF band and not voice - around 500kHz or lower and matching become a very serious business, so mobile transmitters become problematic in terms of wider matching, given the limited transmitter power available. At higher frequencies, noise (both natural and manmade) was more of a reason to limit signal bandwidth (usually in the receiver system, using high-Q filters, often piezo-quartz filters in superhet designs. These were in the days preceeding DSP weak-signal methods that have revolutionised radio systems in the last 25 years. The antenna matching was far easier due to the manageable antenna proportions at high-MF and HF.

        Reducing the spectral utilisation helps immensely, giving a practical (for a superpower defense budget) throughput of single-figure of baud.

        For the old US and Russian systems, 76 and 82 Hz respectively using chunks of the planet as the antenna systems (yes, the planet), the problems increase by magnitudes again, making them Extremely Low Fart-rate systems

        It's far easier to tap at a friendly landing station; failing that tap undersea. Such "intervention" as these subsea jobs are called is far from impossible, as others have noted. Whether it's worthwhile or not given the expense is another matter. Live-working on 10kV DC systems is not impossible using isolated ROV and robotic systems - I've personally seen it done (on a CCTV feed!) on oilfield jobs at 600Vdc+ with minimal problems other than pumping the environment dry and using live-working tools and equipment. and that was using human divers, albeit carefully. These jobs are not done by choice, only by necessity, but are nonetheless doable in relative safely for the operators concerned.

        source : I used to design, tune and match VLF systems. I then spent several years on subsea comms: wideband, voiceband and narrowband, using Hertzian, acoustic and tug-on-a-rope methods.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Why would it have a ULF radio if it has a fibre connected to NSA?

      ULF is simply a silly design concept. It would have been rejected at the outset.


  7. Killing Time


    No matter how logically and coherently you set out your argument I don’t think you will ever convince the ‘tinfoil hat’ brigade. Unfortunately they want to believe that it’s true and that need overrides all reason.

    A fine detailed article laid out in a logical progression.

    Sadly it will not reach the paranoid few.

    But hey, keep it up, articles like this are why I read this site.

    1. dan1980

      Re: @RC

      @Killing Time

      With the disclaimer that Richard is a long-time favourite of mine outside of The Register (a speculative reality, at best), the barriers he mentions - getting to and opening the bundles - are not really the main ones.

      All you need is a submarine with the ability to interface with the ocean - through sending divers out and bringing objects in. This already exists.

      Once you have the ability to reach the cables and work on them in a suitable environment, nearly all of Richard's concerns evaporate. All that is left is a question of how to tap the cable without anyone realising - and there are already methods to do that - and how to filter/collect/retrieve the data.

      The later is, really, the only big issue.

      Still, the proposition being flogged is, indeed, rather far-fetched, but not because the technology is odd so much as that the technology would only be deployed for purposes other than those currently alleged.

      1. Killing Time

        Re: @RC dan1980

        I don’t doubt you appreciate the author, or that various technologies exist to do difficult things on the bottom of the ocean, I just see endless waffle on this thread built on towering layers of conjecture.

        I would say Occam’s Razor is a concept completely alien to the majority of commentards on this particular subject, damn … I‘ve now introduced the possibility of aliens.

        If this…if that… If my Auntie had bollocks she would be my Uncle! Well she doesn’t and she isn’t and neither would she circumvent 10KVdc at the bottom of an ocean with a couple of jumpers or any other such nonsense or flight of fancy however eloquently put up here.

        I just don’t buy it!

        1. Vic

          Re: @RC dan1980

          neither would she circumvent 10KVdc at the bottom of an ocean

          Well, if you were trying to do something like this, it wouldn't be the James Bond-style working in water in a Newt Suit with a pair of side cutters; you'd do this in a dry room on board a sub. If you'd really prepared properly, you'd be doing it in a normobaric room.

          To say that breaking into a subsea fibre cable is "impossible" is simply wrong - it *could* be done. When I was at York, we created a number of tools that would have made this a viable strategy. But it remains both difficult and expensive - and there are several cheaper and easier ways to achieve pretty much the same result.

          And that is why I'd be surprised if the cable was tapped under the sea - because I expect it to be tapped on land instead.


          1. cray74

            Re: @RC dan1980

            "To say that breaking into a subsea fibre cable is "impossible" is simply wrong - it *could* be done. "

            I thought it was done, and frequently, during the Cold War. I mean, that wasn't FIBER, but most of the same problems for tapping ye olde copper cables were present short of actually tapping an optical fiber: armor, voltage, detection, etc. Or is there something else different to tapping fiber than to tapping copper?


      2. LucreLout

        Re: @RC

        "All that is left is a question of how to tap the cable without anyone realising - and there are already methods to do that - and how to filter/collect/retrieve the data. The later is, really, the only big issue."

        I'm not wholly sure collection needs to be the problem people are envisaging.

        Let's say you go with run another cable. Ok, to where? Nearest land base will be expensive... but what if you didn't go for land? Where else might you be able to route a cable with dry space, power, telecoms, and staff? Perhaps to a deep sea oil rig? I'm not saying it isn't pricey, but it may be cheaper than going back to shore in a seperate country.

        Could not some equipment be made that can surface at night, and transmit captured data from during the day? That way your cable length need only be as long as the ocean is deep. Perhaps it could remain submersed, with divers dropping down and plugging in a cable link, which could also recharge the power storage?

        I don't want to sound tin foil hatty about any of this. I'm not saying it has BEEN done ... but surely, taken as a series of engineering challenges by people smarter than I, with an vast budget and a lot of time, I am sure it COULD be done.

        1. dan1980

          Re: @RC


          The issue of collection is not that there are no ways to do it, but that the compromises and costs of collecting the data makes it more likely that they would look for other options.

          As MANY posting here have skipped over, the specific claim being discussed is that these taps are there to monitor the communications of NZ citizens with the cooperation of the NZ government, with the understanding that this will allow the NSA to better spy in NZ citizens, allowing the NZ government to attempt to convince the people it doesn't spy on them.

          Once you realise that that is the claim being made, the massive expense and or compromises required for collection makes this less plausible.

          Again, the claim is that this was done with the cooperation of the NZ government and the context for this revelation is the NZ elections and the Kim Dotcom campaign, whose story has been focussed on the NZ government breaking its own laws to assist the US government.

          While it is certainly possible, if we have to weigh up the factors and alternative methods available to the NSA, is it really that likely that they went that route to accomplish the specific goal claimed?

  8. imanidiot Silver badge

    I doubt they splice

    I have worked with fiber optics cable. Splicing is indeed not a trivial task at the best of times (On land, in a cleanroom, on a table, with plenty of light, equipment and time). The biggest problem however is that it leaves a trace. Any splice generates internal reflections and increases signal damping. The increased cable losses are probably immediately measured (afaik they are pretty much continually monitored). Which will then lead to the cable owner connecting a different measuring device called on Optical Time Domain Reflectometer. It'll tell them exactly WHERE the cable was respliced by someone who is not them to within a few dozen meters. And unless they were paid of by the NSA I doubt they would not send an ROV down to investigate the next time a repair ship was nearby. And if the NSA would go through the trouble of paying off the cable owners I doubt they wouldn't just tap into the endpoints.

    Splicing is not the tool for the job here. There are other, less detectable ways of "tapping" into a fibre cable.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: I doubt they splice

      So couldn't they do it simultaneously with an actual cable break, or even hide the tapping equipment in the repair itself?

    2. This post has been deleted by its author

      1. Vic

        Re: I doubt they splice

        I find it veeeeeeeerrrrrrry difficult to believe anything you said.

        You shouldn't - he's right.

        Any splice will cause some amount of reflection. A sufficiently sensitive OTDR will pick that up.

        We used to make cleavers with <2 degrees end-angle, and a properly calibrated unit would leave just 3 small marks on the face (the cleave point and the wave reflection points). Our OTDRs could see them with ease...


        1. This post has been deleted by its author

          1. dan1980

            Re: I doubt they splice


            "Lol....You are talking about splicing the cable without being detected, do you really think they care if they found out or the owners could do much about it?"

            Um, yes, they would care.

            They would care because the entire reason one would go to all this trouble is to do it IN SECRET. If you have the fibre operators on side then there's really no reason to do this in the first place.

        2. TkH11

          Re: I doubt they splice

          Forget any alarms reported by an OTDR system, the cable's been cut entirely in order to put in joints to run feeds off down new cables. If the loss of signal doesn't raise any alarms, or the loss of data transmission doesn't raise any alarms, I'd be very, very surpised.

    3. JeffyPoooh

      Re: I doubt they splice

      Everyone keeps spouting on about TDRs etc. Serious question here: Would TDRs still work, what with all the repeaters in the circuit?

      I assume that most repeaters are probably unidirectional, right? What about the erbium-doped type? Anyone know? But they don't need 10,000 volts. They need a laser beam. So TDRs may be an issue in the first and last leg of the cable, but I presume aren't much use once you get a couple of repeaters further from shore, right? Anyone think about this?

      Unless, the repeaters are sufficiently sophisticated to include such test equipment in the repeaters themselves. I dunno. Another point of failure vs BITE.

  9. AndrueC Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    A couple of years ago I watched a documentary about a team that added a fibre optic link to some South American country on the west coast. It was actually a very interesting documentary. It showed them using the plough on the beach out into the shallow sea. It showed them spooling out the fibre and ensuring the tension was appropriate.

    The relevant bit is that the cable was going to be spliced into one of the fibres that runs down the Pacific coast of the Americas. They pulled up one of the amplifiers I think (it was a large 'blob' surrounding the cable) and I think they replaced it with a three way version. Then they put the cable back where they found it and sailed off to another job.

    Presumably that technique could be used by spooks if they wanted but as this article says - I doubt they'd bother. They'd have to rent the ship and that's a lot of people to keep quiet.

    1. Jellied Eel Silver badge

      Relevant bit is called a branching unit, eg Huawei BU1650 which is basically a switch/splitter that works usually with an amp/repeater to split signals off to drop at a landing station. They can be attached to the cable offshore, otherwise the cables are built through the landing stations in sections with the PFE and SLTs (Submarine Laser Terminals) powering and lighting each section. Adding one could get tricky given the power and optical signals are closely watched and cuts detectable very quickly. Then fire a TDR test from landing stations both ends of the cable to measure how far along the cable the cut is and send the co-ordinates to a cable ship to start looking for the cut.

      They use either an ROV to visually follow and inspect the cable so may send a picture back of something unexpected. Alternatively the cable ship hooks up the section where the damage is, or cuts either side and splices a new cable section in. If there's an unexpected cable hanging off it, that would easily be noticed. Old copper cables could allegedly be clamped and monitored with the clamps detaching if they were disturbed.

      For fibre, the idea of a parasitic clamp that could monitor a fibre without cutting it is less plausible. You could possibly do it via microbends but they'd require exposing the fibre which is in the middle of the cable surrounded by the cladding, armor wire and chunky copper power core. Which on a long distance cable like a transatlantic or transpacific one would probably be running 30-50kV DC. Exposing that to sea water could allow rapid detachment via the resulting short and steam explosion.

      If you're not running the tap cable back to your own landing station, you'd then have to manage the data. That's not hundreds of megabits, it's usually n x 10/40/100Gbps. So an off-shore data logger would need to be a combination of DWDM mux, DPI system and storage, which would need it's own power and communications. Perhaps this is where the Google barges ended up? ULF isn't exactly practical if you're trying to send data transmitted originally at Ghz via ULF at a a few hundred hertz, or a few bits per second. That could involve rather a lot of buffering.

      But if all those challenges are overcome, then it would be possible. A while ago I did look into the practicality of creating an off-shore PoP with a mux and router. Operating Juniper or Cisco at those depths would be tricky, not to mention voiding their warranties. They don't include deep-sea divers in their SmartNet contracts either.

    2. JeffyPoooh

      some South American country

      Do you recall that they actually cut the existing cable in situ (deep underwater) using a cable cutter on the end of a long cable? (!!!) I thought that that step displayed amazingly confidence. Then they fished up the ends one at a time to install the long splice with the new T junction. The section inserted into the existing cable was a fairly long section of new cable, not a short little thingamabob.

      Then they ran the new cable sideways (east) to Whats-it-stan.

      1. AndrueC Silver badge
        Thumb Up

        Re: some South American country

        Do you recall that they actually cut the existing cable in situ (deep underwater) using a cable cutter on the end of a long cable? (!!!)

        I didn't but your mention of a long cutter on the end of a cable rings a definite bell. I thought it was pretty clever that they could pull a cable up from that depth. Mind you they did that with telegraph cables back in the day without the aid of ROVs. Astonishing.

      2. Jellied Eel Silver badge

        Re: some South American country

        "Then they ran the new cable sideways (east) to Whats-it-stan."

        That sounds like a standard branching unit for a new customer. Ideally you want to get those on board when the system's being designed because post-installation it means getting cable ships, cutting the cable and more cost/risk.

        There's some videos on YT and Hibernia Atlantic's website showing how the subsea cable stuff works. Some of it seems crude, ie cutting anchors but done by specialists on some very special ships.

        There was a point where industry was complaining about the O&M (maintenance costs) on subsea capacity and trying to squeeze costs. So was challenging sometimes to explain those charges paid to keep the cable ships crewed and ready to deal with faults. Some were in danger of going bust, but the increase in offshore wind farms helped generate new business. But also means they may be busy on other jobs. If you're buying wet capacity, always use protection as finding and fixing faults is really possible inside a day.

    3. TkH11

      keeping quiet

      If the security services wanted to keep anything quiet, they can. I know of an underground city in the UK which was kept quiet for 50 years, think how many people it took to dig it out, to build everything, yet they kept it quiet? How so? By classifying it at a high level and making people sign the official secrets acts with a 10 year prison sentence hanging over their heads if they discussed it with people that didn't need to know.

  10. Breen Whitman

    Nice OP-Ed piece courtesy of the CIA about the southern cross cable being huge, with 1/4 inch steel rods on the 2nd layer, and virtually impenetrable.

    The truth is the cable is 1.5 cm in diameter, and can be cut with high quality shears, and a small boat anchor.

    1. Kingston Black
      Big Brother

      Landing Points

      Shame about the apparent lack of fact checking and speculation in the article.

      The discussion about the (un)feasibility of splicing undersea is a smoke screen. Google the landing points of the SCC - Hawaii (ex-home of Mr E. Snowden) and mainland USA. Much more favourable locations for a cable tap...

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Landing Points

        Finally, someone who hasn't been distracted by the "puppet" of the undersea cable in the article.

    2. Benjol

      Especially as in that article they *also* talk about allegations of tapping, though admittedly not specifically underwater.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      The truth?

      Look at the photo of an armoured unsea fibre optic cable in Chirgwin's article and remember you can't trust Wikipedia.

      The diagram in the Wikipedia article is missing the outer shell of armour, without which no undersea cable is going to survive long enough to be worth laying.

      The truth is that the core of the cable is 17 mm diameter, surrounded with heavy duty armour which - looking at the photo - probably does involve wire of about 1/4" diameter. I suspect the CIA got that bit slightly wrong, since even US engineering firms have (mostly) embraced metric units.

  11. mccp


    Surely it would be easy enough to make sure that the continuity of the power cable was maintained with a couple of jumper leads?

    The rest sounds hard but not impossible.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Power

      Surely it would be easy enough to make sure that the continuity of the power cable was maintained with a couple of jumper leads?

      At 10kV or above that'll be some mighty fine jumper leads. Your average car battery leads will be a tad out of their league here. I agree with the author that it seems a lot of hard work for what is much easier (and more economically) won with good old bribing, blackmail and deception. If you're truly worried about this leaking, even adding an "accident" to the bill is unlike to get the bill to what you'd need to tap a cable in-sea. But hey, it may be a way of at least getting a *budget* for it.

      Incidentally, that allows me to address a small tech gotcha in the article:

      “We've got rubber, the diver will be okay”. Yeah, right.

      It's good to place a question mark there, even just for fun, but I found this often a dangerous association by people that need to come near power: rubber "isolates". Not all rubber is equal to the task. Rubber that has been blackened can even be conductive because of the additive used to make it black, its use for insulation would thus instantly pass this blackness on to the unfortunate user.

      If you want to mess with power, use kit that is both certified and tested or you may be kept from repeating that mistake by good old Darwin himself.

      Apologies from digressing from the story, though, I found both it and the very insightful comments the exact thing why I keep reading El Reg. More!

      1. razorfishsl

        Re: Power

        ER no the 10 KV is due to transmission lengths, the current would be low, mind you using DC is just stupid,since it makes step-down more difficult

        A car battery requires 'big' jumper leads, because it pulls about 600 Amps @12v when it turns the engine over, that's one hell of a big chunk of metal and torque to rotate

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Power

          Using DC is essential, not stupid. You can tell that it's not stupid because it's the method chosen for all these hellishly expensive highly lucrative undersea communications links.

          The reason it's essential is that AC current induces current in conductive stuff nearby. It's how transformers work. Pushing AC power along undersea cables inevitably results in losses into the sea, even if you engineer your cable to avoid induction losses.

          It's one of the reasons that undersea links between national electricity grids are all DC, not AC.

          The engineering details of turning AC into DC and back again to enable convenient voltage transformation (etc) were all dealt with long ago but you can't beat the induction loss problem.

        2. TkH11

          Re: Power

          DC step down difficult? Potential divider..two resistors..might have to be physically large to handle the high voltage. Not difficult.

          1. Vic

            Re: Power

            DC step down difficult?

            For power transmission, yes.

            Potential divider..two resistors..might have to be physically large to handle the high voltage. Not difficult.

            OK, try delivering 250V/100A (that's the fuse in my house). Deliver it from a 400kV source (National Grid high-voltage circuits). Now look at how much power you will dissipate in your potential divider to deliver the 25kW I'm asking for...


  12. DragonLord

    As a point, why wouldn't they just cut the cable and then during the few days that the company is scrambling to deal with the outage install their gear at the friendly end of the cable? It would give them plenty of time to do this sort of thing and make it much easier to change later.

    1. Trevor_Pott Gold badge

      For NZ <--> US, they probably would do exactly that. For EU <--> Africa? Probably not. I feasibility and likelihood of cable taps would - to me at least - depend on which cables we're talking about.

      1. kend1

        re: Trevor

        For NZ <--> US, they probably would do exactly that. For EU <--> Africa? Probably not. I feasibility and likelihood of cable taps would - to me at least - depend on which cables we're talking about.

        Quote from leading experts on data transfer

        "Oh, yeah, an African swallow maybe, but not a EU swallow, that's my point."

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Big Brother

    Operation Ivy Bells ..

    "Operation Ivy Bells was a joint United States Navy, CIA, and National Security Agency (NSA) mission whose objective was to place wire taps on Soviet underwater communication lines during the Cold War." ref

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Operation Ivy Bells ..

      AFAIK, in those days, the game was electrical, not optical. An electrical circuit is easier to tap (also many more repeaters to mess with).

      1. Anonymous Coward
  14. Billa Bong

    Groundhog day

    In the last article the majority of the comments I read were to do with the frankly laughable claim that "it couldn't be done" - it was refuted time and again with novel ideas on how it could be done, yet at the same time many of the commentards would state "but of course there are much easier ways of tapping". And here we are again...

    Beer, and lots of it, because if I'm going to wake up this morning again tomorrow I won't have a hangover. Nice.

  15. Adam Foxton

    It would be pretty hard

    With a sub or divers. But with a dedicated ROV + custom tooling you'd be able to do it in any depth.

    Remove the armouring at 2 points with a grinder (standard practice when cutting ROV umbilicals, which are km-long kv-carrying electric/fibre cables, and easy enough to automate)

    Surround the 2 sections in oil, held very slightly above ambient pressure (cheap to do)

    Abrade away the plastic sheath around one conductor. The oil prevents it shorting to seawater. Connect to it a surface-mounted jumper wire. Repeat for the other conductors.

    Repeat at the second position, and join the jumper cables in the middle with a wet splice. Et voila, you've got a jumper for the power. You can now cut the conductors somewhere in between them and, so long as your jumper is correctly specced, no-one will know.

    So you cut and intercept the fibres at your leisure. Fusion splicing is quick and cheap (well, sub-10k for a small unit. Cheap on a SpecOps budget) and introduces very low losses. Pass your data down the adjacent fibre you rent on this cable, or take your fibres off as single strands (so they'll snap off if the cable is recovered, with the remains hidden under marine growth).

    Re-seal the cut-apart section and re-lay everything layer by layer.

    Remove the power jumpers and relay the armouring, welding the ends back together.

    The whole operation could take a few minutes with appropriate automated tooling and practice. The total disruption to the fibre could be under a minute with appropriate planning and equipment.

    Even manually, reterminating armoured subsea umbilicals like this can be taken down to well under an hour if you're using a fusion splicer for the fibres. It's essentially the same process except without the power jumping (as it's turned off at the time).

    Do it close to a booster and a cable guy onshore with an OTDR would barely notice.

    It's not just possible that they could have done it, it's plausible that they do it semi-routinely.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: It would be pretty hard

      My problem is that I have no basis to decide if your version or the author is more plausible - both appear to make a good case. I'll just go with the fact that we can safely take it for granted that taps are in place, whether that has been done at great cost or of great value to the (US) tax payer..

      1. Adam Foxton

        Re: It would be pretty hard

        I frequently cut back and reterminate armoured subsea cables, and work with subsea HV systems as part of my job (going round the world fixing ROVs).

        Onshore this would be a pretty simple operation (aside from the safety implications of working on live multi-kv electrics) to undertake.

        Subsea it would be a lot harder, but the pressure and water aren't the significant problems. The difficulty comes from the lack of human hands and eyes and brain doing the job, but a couple of million dollars in sensors and actuators and hydraulics would get round that problem. It's far from impossible.

        You can take it for granted that this happens. Fortunately they're secretive government types, so they'll want to keep it hidden. If they developed it in-house it likely didn't cost you that much :)

    2. Peter Fairbrother 1

      Re: It would be pretty hard

      There is only one conductor - the copper tube in the diagram. One end is kept at say 10,000V (compared to a big copper ground plate in the ground) and the other is at 0V, connected to a big copper ground plate in the ground.

      The copper tube is fairly thick in everyday terms; but considered as an area/length ratio, it is very thin, and its resistance is therefore considerable. The current in the copper is only about 2 amps.

      The voltage across each repeater is only about 30V, though the voltage at each end of a repeater might be 9,910V and 9,940V. compared to ground.

      Suppose there are 100 repeaters. Each repeater uses say 60W. and takes 30V at 2 amps; at 10,000V the remaining 7,000V drop is lost to the resistance of the copper tube.

      That's maybe 15 years out of date; I think a modern cable uses a bit more power per repeater and less repeaters, but it should give some idea. Al, some use double-ended power supplies.

  16. senti


    I am not sure if the author is taking the piss, or is being serious.

    I hope he's just taking a piss because he's been watching too many spy movies.

  17. HPCJohn

    Operation Ivy Bells

    I can't remember the title, but there is a fascinating book about US spy submarine operations in the 1970s

    The book details how the sub went to the Sea of Okhotsk and placed a listening pod on the voice cables.

    They returned months later to pick up the tapes.

    Divers brought a king crab on board for the crew to eat!

  18. Ian 56

    "In running the line that undersea cables were cut, Greenwald is straying far enough from what's feasible and credible that his judgement on other claims needs to be questioned."

    You might want to go back and read the original article (linked back from this piece (via the last one)). I have, and I don't see anywhere Greenwald saying that the cables were cut. The closest he gets is this:

    "Top secret documents provided by the whistleblower demonstrate that the GCSB, with ongoing NSA cooperation, implemented Phase I of the mass surveillance program code-named “Speargun” at some point in 2012 or early 2013. “Speargun” involved the covert installation of “cable access” equipment, which appears to refer to surveillance of the country’s main undersea cable link, the Southern Cross cable. [...]

    Upon completion of the first stage, Speargun moved to Phase II, under which “metadata probes” were to be inserted into those cables."

    Then he goes on to provide his evidence for those statements.

    So you have "access equipment", and "probes", which could mean almost anything. Nowhere does it say "cut".

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Greenwald did say the cables were tapped underwater

      Just not in the article cited by Chirgwin.

      Look here:

      "Phase one is the tapping into of the underwater cables that transmit, that essentially connect New Zealand to the rest of the world via the internet."

      "[...] you would not go into the ocean and tap into those cable lines, unless this programme has been implemented and approved" - Glenn Greenwald.

      The documents Greenwald was working from don't say the data slurping was done via an underwater connection, but that's what Greenwald seems to be assuming.

      This isn't about whether it's feasible to tap an underwater optical comms cable. It's about how much you can trust what Glenn Greenwald says. In this case, he seems to have made a mistaken assumption.

      It does occur to me that you don't need to cut into an optical comms fibre to tap its data flow.

      If you can get to the fibre and dissolve away the cladding, then seal around the exposed fibre a tube filled with a liquid of appropriate refractive index, light will just leak out into your tube, which can contain an optical detector if you feel the urge.

      It'd take some serious effort to get that idea to work without excessive losses to the signal in the fibre while permitting reliable reading of the leaked part of the signal, but what's the betting the NSA's got the resources to do so if they want to?

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I've a thought

    They get the Aquaphibians to do it for them...

  20. BristolBachelor Gold badge

    Why cut it live?

    The thing is that these cables take a long time to lay, and you get loads of notice as companies group up, sell prospective bandwidth, issue requests for quotations to cable manufacturers, book cable laying ships, etc.

    So, you put in a splice after the cable has started being laid, but before it is operational. You have loads of time to do it, and it could be done before people notice. Yes, it's probable that the cable is not 100% dead for 100% of the time that it is being laid, in order to ensure that they don't lay dead bits, but it's probably not live 100% of the time either.

    The other thing is that it would be relatively easy to pay the layers to look the other way, while you play with it, and/or implant someone in the crew.

    However, it's far easier to just hook in where the cable lands.

    1. Charles 9

      Re: Why cut it live?

      "However, it's far easier to just hook in where the cable lands."

      Perhaps, but also recall that some of the argument is that the cable may land in "enemy territory" where tapping on land isn't politically possible or safe.

  21. Alistair

    fibre cable undersea splicing jobs.

    I thought we had sharks with frikkin lazers man! I mean, teeth. Lazers. Job done no?

    Oh look. There's a free port on that there Sonet tree. 'click'. pokes at keyboard.

    What? yup, we're all good here.

  22. Fake Name

    And people say...

    ...that Aquaman is useless!

  23. Runty Dog

    Remember the Halibut

    Look up the history of the USS Halibut - an early nuke sub that tapped the underwater Soviet phone lines at the Kamchatka sub pens. Forget about the NSA, worry about the Navy

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Remember the Halibut

      Yes, but the NSA essentially used to be the Navy. Just as GCHQ took over the Bletchley Park organization, the NSA's forerunner was the U.S. navy's cryptography unit at Pearl Harbor--the guys who broke the Japanese JN series naval codes in time for Midway. That's part of the reason that there is still a big NSA operation on Oahu, which in turn was where Snowden was working.

      It's also one of the reasons why it used to be common for the head of the NSA to be a serving admiral.

  24. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Op Ivy Bells

    The book is "Blind Man's Bluff".

    The tap was made at a Western Electric plant (a pre-break up AT&T company).

  25. Bucky 2

    I was watching a documentary called "Spy Kids 2," and I think the tech to do such tapping already exists.

  26. Anonymous Coward


    -It's already been documented that the NSA/U.S. Navy tapped Soviet undersea fiber-optic cables during the Cold War.

    -International telecoms companies have SOOOOO many pressure points that can be used by spy agencies to get access to fiber without sending a sub. Need a fat check out of the black ops budget? We can do that. Need your next fiber-optic cable route approved by the U.S. government or a U.S. ally? We can do that. Need to win that government/government contractor data comms contract that is coming up next year? We can help you with that. Need regulatory approval for some terrestrial or wireless telecoms deployment or a merger or an overseas expansion? We can make sure the White House/Downing Street/whoever will weigh in for you or not weigh in against you.

    And if none of that works, you can always break out the submarine and tap the cable Cold War-style.

  27. razorfishsl

    Yep it seems unfeasible, but you would not do it that way anyway

    A splice 'might' be made the SAME way they currently REPAIR cable

    Drag it to the surface onto a boat

  28. Private Citizen.AU
    Black Helicopters

    Commercial agreements allowed direct access.

    I cant seem to find the article right now but it contained a copy of a Howard-Era "confidential" agreement that effectively only allowed Australian fibre to come ashore in USA on the condition that the traffic was copied to NSA (?) data warehouse. It just requires a router where the cable comes ashore.

    I wasn't aware how hardy submarine cables were, and would agree that it would be ridiculously impractical to tap and importantly maintain your taps.

    Why bother when your government is compliant with the country that wants to do the spying? Just build an onshore repository in the destination country and force commercial operators to comply.

  29. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Remember that rash of mysterious undersea cable "failures" a few years back?

    Funny how they were all carrying traffic to the Middle East and Africa, wasn't it? Such a coincidence...

    Maybe they can tap cables without the owner noticing, maybe they can't. But it is pretty easy to simulate an accidental break (find where they trenched the cable relatively near shore and drag an anchor over it, I'm sure there are other ways) and during the time it takes the repair crew to come out, you can replace one of their amplifiers with of your own that includes extra "features".

  30. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Greenwald never said the cable was tapped underwater.

    I've read the article at "New Zealand Launched Mass Surveillance Project While Publicly Denying It".

    Has no other commentard bothered to do so?

    Chirgwin's article states that "In running the line that undersea cables were cut, Greenwald is straying far enough from what's feasible and credible that his judgement on other claims needs to be questioned."

    However, the article he refers to does NOT make the claim that undersea cables were cut. It does make these claims - note the key phrase "surveillance of the country’s main undersea cable link":

    "... the mass surveillance program code-named “Speargun” [which] involved the covert installation of “cable access” equipment, which appears to refer to surveillance of the country’s main undersea cable link, the Southern Cross cable."

    "Upon completion of the first stage, Speargun moved to Phase II, under which “metadata probes” were to be inserted into those cables. [...] enabling [the GCSB] to extract the dates, times, senders, and recipients of emails, phone calls, and the like."

    (GCSB: New Zealand spy agency, the Government Communications Security Bureau)

    So the spooks are snooping on a data link that goes underwater - but the report doesn't say they tapped into it underwater.

    As Chirgwin points out, why muck about trying to tap a heavy duty undersea communications cable by cutting into it underwater when it's so much easier to tap into it on land? They've got some pretty clever people at the NSA and GCSB - some of them even cleverer than Chirgwin, I don't doubt.

    I dunno, maybe they did something like find their way into the sturdy concrete box that contains the Southern Cross cable termination in NZ, and installed some cunning equipment into the rack of kit that generates the actual optical signal?

    - the degree of cunningness might have to be quite high to hide it from the cable's owner if that's necessary, but recent reports indicate that the NSA does appear to be up to it.

    Just because they called the programme "Speargun" doesn't mean they did it underwater, you know. Sometimes these secret intelligence agencies are sneaky enough to use a technique known as "misdirection", the rotten swines that they are.

    Yes, Greenwald does refer to "metadata probes" "inserted" into those cables: since that's phase two, the phase after the installation of the "cable access equipment", I think Greenwald's got a bit confused. My reading is that phase one - the cable access kit - permits access to the data passing through the cable. Then Phase 2 is more of a software thing to extract metadata from the flood of raw data being picked up by the cable access kit.

    Greenwald's past performance indicates that he's not the most tech savvy journalist out there - but at no point does the article Chirgwin linked to suggest the cable was cut underwater.


    It seems to me that one should question the judgement of anyone who thinks that the original report from Greenwald suggested covertly tapping the cable underwater, which is a stupendously difficult and expensive undertaking.

    1. Ian 56

      Re: Greenwald never said the cable was tapped underwater.

      "Has no other commentard bothered to do so?"

      Yeah, me (see above) ... :)

      Possibly, we were the only two.

  31. Glen Turner 666

    Tapping backhaul providers would do the same job more simply

    Hi Richard

    Cables are cut by fishing boats all the time. They are pulled up onboard a ship and repaired all the time. So although repair and re-splicing is fiddly, it is also an everyday fiddly task. Not some impossibility as your article comes close to suggesting. If the 10KV was actually enough to damage a fishing trawler we'd be very happy -- sadly it readily dissipates in seawater. That gives NSA a simple technique to cut a live cable -- clamp chains to the cable 100m apart, chop the cable in the middle, pull up the chains.

    The point Briscoe makes is that SCCN would know about this. But you can readily imagine some misdirection, such as cutting the cable once again a few Km away to give a despatched repair ship something to fix.

    The question is -- is this likely? And it's not really, because of the backhaul problem. You've applied your splice, you've got a copy of all the data, now how do you get that data back to land? The only choice is to hire wavelengths or complete fibre on the same cable under some pretext (such as connecting Pine Gap back to the USA). That's not really possible to do mid-span without a high chance of stuff up (such as the wavelength used gaining power mid-span, or a FEC incompatibility).

    The NSA's desire is much more simply met by tapping the backhaul fibre heading away from the landing site : there's no water, no voltage, no close monitoring, no forward error correction. Just simple dark fibre in a conduit.

    The NSA could require a Room 641A type arrangement to tap each cable as it is patched from the undersea cable headend to the customer. But Briscoe is saying that isn't the case (although he explicitly did not call out the Australian landing sites in his denial). Briscoe might well be truthful -- you can only imagine that having had Room 641A revealed by a junior technician that the NSA would look to less apparent ways to do the task.

    I don't think it's likely that the NSA are using CALEA or other interception requests for transmission networks. Those legislative mechanisms don't suit transmission networks at all.

    BTW, carriers don't encrypt link traffic. It was thought that there was no need. It's fair to say that the various leaks from the NSA are changing that view. However encryption of high speed, high latency, high natural error links isn't as simple as you might hope. That means it's expensive and thus the engineering desire has to overcome the beancounting hardheads.

    Cheers, glen

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Tapping backhaul providers would do the same job more simply

      As you've said, you have a point concerning friendly nations, but what about hostile nations where land tapping isn't feasible? Isn't that why the Navy put taps on Soviet FO lines during the Cold War, because there was no other way to intercept their international communications (tapping the other end may not have been feasible either as it may have also been in a hostile nation and/or had too many egress points)?

  32. TkH11


    This article is nonsense: it's objective is to rubbish the theory that sumarine cables can't be intercepted when in situ. But the fact is, fibre cables do get broken and do get repaired by specialist repair ships! It might not be easy but it is certainly done. You have to have a way to do it, you can't re-lay a 500KM cable just because of one tiny break in it.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: nonsense

      No, it's about rubbishing Glenn Greenwald's ability to interpret information he's received.

      Chirgwin's pointing out that it's hard to intercept a submarine comms cable and very hard to do so covertly and that Greenwald was being daft to assume that underwater is where a covert tap would be installed.

      Chirgwin didn't say it was impossible - just not the way it'd be sensible to do the job if you had an alternative you could use. And it's reasonable to assume that the NZ snooping spy agency working with the NSA are in a position to install kit covertly pretty much anywhere in NZ that they feel like.

  33. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Hawaii- island of tropical palms and Pearl Harbour.

    The way that 5 eyes works (as far as the 5 Govt's are concerned) is simple.

    We don't spy on our own people ( because that might be against the law) but we don't mind if you others in the group do that for us, and then allow us access back to the collected data.

    Simple, easy and legal- at least as far as the Spooks are concerned.

    The majority of cross Pacific cables come ashore at Hawaii before transiting on.

    Edward Snowden was working at the large NSA centre there. Most of which is underground.

    Tapping in easy.

    None of this is rocket science , and doesn't involve a great deal of technology.

    It is all smoke and mirrors to keep the general populace amused while they siphon up everything and take it back to the ultimate storage centre that they just built in Utah, and then share it back to the other 5 eyes partners who, of course, can deny they ever had a hand in collecting it.

    Simple stuff, and no one ever got their hands wet in the process.

  34. fourth of three

    Are these cables insured?

    A glance at the risks section of the policy would be highly informative.

  35. J__M__M

    what are the chances

    Interesting how just about everyone in the room knows how to ninja-tap into these tree-trunk sized fiber bundles sitting at the bottom of the ocean.

    But you're all wrong. Trained dolphins are the only way to do this one, take it from me.

  36. Matthew Elvey

    Article author Richard Chirgwin is either a stooge or incompetent (or this is just cljckspam). Here's why:

    What Greenwald wrote is, "“Speargun” involved the covert installation of 'cable access' equipment, which appears to refer to surveillance of the country’s main undersea cable link, the Southern Cross cable."

    In no way does this include Greenwald claiming that the undersea portion of the cable link was accessed. It could be done the same way splitters feed Room 641A (Google it or see ...)

    Not to mention that other commenters have pointed out that the US has assets (USS Jimmy Carter) designed specifically to tap undersea cables.

  37. Seabhcan

    Of course this could never, ever, happen.

  38. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Utter Rubbish !

    Besides all the technical faults in the Article , I note even a complete misrepresentation of a link he refers to, 800ft in your Article vs 800+ ft in the link, plus all the other oversights. This factor should put this well and truly to bed.

    Any one of these 'incidents' could have been your alleged 'impossible' cable tap. You are a right honorable PRAT !

    This precludes the many seemingly insubstantial incidents. That's just 2008. To think the premise of your article hinges on the assumption that there have never been cable outages of unknown origin, Vis-à-vis taping is impossible:- is simply a non sequitur of the highest order. You should not be allowed to work in this industry again you utter imbecilic fool.

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