NSA Used Retro Tactics to Spy on Yahoo, Google

The NSA, which had no problem gaining access to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s personal phone, was able to infiltrate Google and Yahoo by bypassing their high security data centers.

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Last month we learned that the NSA, which wreaked havoc for Obama’s PR team by allegedly snooping on every person with a cell phone anywhere, also managed to tap into tech fortresses Google and Yahoo. That's a bit of a surprising development considering the agency had front-end access to their data via the secretive Prism spying program. The NSA, which had no problem gaining access to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s personal phone, was able to infiltrate the companies by bypassing their high security data centers.

According to a report in The New York Times, the spy agency targeted fiber-optic cable providers that connect data centers globally, rather than hacking into Google or Yahoo directly. The unencrypted cables are owned by companies like Verizon, Vodafone, and Level 3 Communications, which some suspect was the firm that was breached. The Times reports that hitting up connector cables is actually a pretty old school move:

As far back as the days of the telegraph, spy agencies have located their operations in proximity to communications companies. Indeed, before the advent of the Internet, the N.S.A. and its predecessors for decades operated listening posts next to the long-distance lines of phone companies to monitor all international voice traffic. Beginning in the 1960s, a spy operation code-named Echelon targeted the Soviet Union and its allies’ voice, fax and data traffic via satellite, microwave and fiber-optic cables. In the 1990s, the emergence of the Internet both complicated the task of the intelligence agencies and presented powerful new spying opportunities based on the ability to process vast amounts of computer data.

The latest allegations against the NSA emerged from documents revealed by former Agency contractor Edward Snowden and publicized by The Washington Post. Snowden exposed the government agency’s Prism spying program in June, and has since been granted asylum in Russia, though he is still wanted in the U.S. Emerging details of the NSA’s broad surveillance network have sparked outrage abroad, where allied leaders call Washington’s behavior unacceptable, and at home, where U.S. citizens are shocked by the privacy breach.

Even Senators Ron Wyden, Mark Udall, and Martin Heinrich — all members of the Intelligence Committee — bemoan the indiscriminate collection of private data, and the recently ratified surveillance reform bill that would allow the practice to continue. They even wrote about it an op-ed for Tuesday's New York Times:

The usefulness of the bulk collection program has been greatly exaggerated. We have yet to see any proof that it provides real, unique value in protecting national security. In spite of our repeated requests, the N.S.A. has not provided evidence of any instance when the agency used this program to review phone records that could not have been obtained using a regular court order or emergency authorization.

The senators, in this case, echo the will of the people. Several polls show that most Americans believe NSA surveillance should be reined in.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.