NSA Overcomes Fiber-Optic and Encryption

John Young jya at pipeline.com
Mon Aug 9 20:19:35 PDT 2004

Excerpt below from a Baltimore Sun article of August 8, 2004.
Some of it could be true, but.



Director of NSA shifts to new path

By Scott Shane
Sun National Staff

August 8, 2004  


Technology revolution   

Given the dire assessments a few years ago, it is notable that Hayden 
says the communications revolution has on the whole been a plus, not a 
minus, for the NSA.   

The NSA director declines to elaborate. But interviews with outside 
experts suggest that the agency has managed to overcome the challenges 
posed by fiber-optic cable and encryption.   

"My opinion is that at this point, those are little more than a speed 
bump to NSA," says Steve Uhrig, president of SWS Security, a Harford 
County firm that builds eavesdropping and counter-eavesdropping systems 
for U.S. and foreign police agencies. "They have a virtually unlimited 
budget, and they can put amazing resources to work on a problem."   

Several sources who regularly speak with NSA officials say they believe 
Uhrig is right. Although they do not know the details, they say the 
agency has almost certainly managed to tap fiber cables on a large-scale 
basis, making access to the information inside less of a problem than its 
overwhelming volume.   

The NSA has also found a silver lining to the use of encrypted e-mail: 
Even if a particular message cannot be read, the very use of encryption 
can flag it for NSA's attention. By tracking the relatively few Internet 
users in a certain country or region who take such security measures, NSA 
analysts might be able to sketch a picture of a terrorist network.   

Information 'in motion'   

And by focusing their electronic tricks on messages as they are first 
typed on a computer or when they are read on the other end - what 
security experts call "information at rest" - NSA technical experts might 
be able to bypass otherwise-unbreakable encryption used when the 
information is "in motion."   

Meanwhile, the popularity of e-mail and particularly of cell phones has 
worked to the NSA's advantage in the battle against terrorism.   

The NSA's computers can track and sort huge volumes of e-mail far more 
easily than they can manage telephone intercepts, because text is 
consistently represented in digital code.   

And cell phones - as handy for terrorist plotters as for everyone else - 
provide not just an eavesdropping target but also a way to physically 
track the user.   

Uhrig, who has installed cellular intercept systems in several countries, 
says that as cell phones have proliferated, the "cells" served by a tower 
or other antenna have correspondingly grown smaller. "A big hotel may 
have a cell for every other floor. Every big office building is its own 
cell," he says.   

Easier tracking   

By following a switched-on cell phone as it shifts from cell to cell, 
"you can watch the person move," Uhrig says. "You can tell the direction 
he's moving. If he's moving slow, he's walking. If he's moving fast, he's 
in a car. The tracking is sometimes of much more interest than the 
contents of a call."   


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