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This might be the scariest story you'll ever read.

Long available in raw data form from WikiLeaks, this is the story of government contractor Glimmerglass of Hayward California, now presented by Pratap Chatterjee of CorpWatch and augmented by YouTube video clips provided by the Glimmerglass people themselves.

One might reasonably wonder why such information is made available to the public, but there it is - and it requires but minimal skills in reading between the lines to pick the story up.


One of the flagship products of Glimmerglass is a package known as CyberSweep which intercepts signals on undersea cables. Glimmerglass boast that they can intercept traffic from webmail services as well as social sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and theirs isn't an empty boast, judging from the slides they provide.

How is this possible, you may ask. How can any private corporation intercept Internet traffic from the bottom of an ocean? Simple. They get in, by prior arrangement it would seem, at the node points where the traffic in the seas meets the traffic on land.

Glimmerglass have a rather fancy optical fibre switching technology which can 'tee' signals and send copies off to their own destinations. Couple this with the analytical software of CyberSweep, and you have near 100% surveillance, with unbelievable data collation possibilities - something Glimmerglass refer to nicely as 'actionable intelligence'.

The NSA already paid $25 million to upgrade a listening station for Britain's GCHQ in Bude, located in north Cornwall, the node for a lot of the ocean traffic.

NSA analysts came to Bude in 2011 to help with the launch of the now infamous Tempora after probes were installed on 200 undersea cables. At least seven companies were involved, according to Süddeutsche Zeitung: British Telecom, Global Crossing, Interoute, Level 3, Viatel, Verizon Business, Vodafone Cable.

Tempora was designed to be able to hold three full days of traffic at any given time. This can equate to 21 petabytes of data per day, or roughly 600,000,000 'telephone events'. Later processes can reduce the bulk, keeping mostly only the metadata, and the three day buffer is expected to grow over time.

  The Glimmerglass interactive Facebook grid. Click on anything and learn everything.

Glimmerglass claim they can 'extract the data source format' of the traffic and aggregate the data for 'probes' to uncover 'actionable information from the flood of data on persons of interest, known and unknown targets, anticipated and known threats'. This shouldn't be taken lightly.

Glimmerglass describe CyberSweep as an 'end to end cyber security solution' that can 'select, extract and monitor' all 'mobile and fixed line data, voice and video, internet, web 2.0 and social networking' with 'probes and sniffers'.

Their analytical tools for getting into Facebook activities are very telling. Explains Chatterjee:

One display of what CyberSweep is capable of is a visual grid of Facebook messages of a presumably fictional person named John Smith. His profile is connected to a number of other individuals with arrows indicating how often he connected to each of them. Each individual can be identified with images, user names and IDs. Another pane shows the detailed chat records. Yet another graphic shows Facebook connections between multiple individuals, presumably to identify networks.

Used by US Intel

Glimmerglass say openly that their products have been used by US intel for the past five years. Controlling traffic becomes a matter of controlling the light, says the voiceover in one of the Glimmerglass videos. 'With Glimmerglass, customers have full control of massive flows of intelligence from the moment they access them.'

Tapping undersea cables is a clever idea. Approximately 90% of all international telecommunications data goes through the transatlantic cables, even if it's a call from Asia to Africa, and especially, says Chatterjee, if it's run through Microsoft's Skype.

The undersea cables actually date back to 1858 when they were laid for telegraph traffic. Back then it was the UK trying to connect their empire. Today the shipping industry picks up the lead. Currently there are over half a million miles of cables in 301 systems on the ocean floors. And these cables eventually make landfall, where they're picked up by the GCHQ, the NSA, and then processed by systems like Glimmerglass.

The original copper cables were replaced by fibre-optic lines 25 years ago. The old AT&T Trans Atlantic-8 from 1988, running from New Jersey to Bude, could handle 280 Mb/sec. The new cables, installed in 2000 and again in 2007 by Level 3 and running from New York to Bude, can handle 640 Gb/sec - 2,300 times faster.

And Then Glimmerglass Came In

Redundancy is important all across the Internet. This is seen, for example, in the coupling of TCP and IP. Technologies are 'layered' to make sure the message gets through.

USA Today covered what was called a 'breakthrough' product in 2002 - the Glimmerglass optical gateway which started shipping in September of that year. The Glimmerglass optical gateway can take a beam of light coming in on a fibre-optic line and bounce it into an optical fibre going somewhere else, and do it at a cost 100 times less than the typical $10 million optical switch. And most importantly: it can mirror the beam as well.

The Glimmerglass optical gateway has thousands of tiny mirrors mounted on minuscule hinges on a silicon chip. Glimmerglass spent $25 million researching how best to control the calibration of those mirrors.

But now they can stamp out their optical switches like silicon processors. To pass the beams on, the technology must be able to understand what type of data is there - video, voice, data, and so forth - something touted as a 'feature' today.

The Rabbit Hole Goes Much Much Deeper

The above is only the start of Glimmerglass technology and its uses. Things are very much as Edward Snowden described them: techies sitting at consoles able to flip switches to get at almost everything about you.

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See Also
WikiLeaks: The Spyfiles
USA Today: Glimmerglass shines in dark telecom times
TeleGeography: Submarine Cable Map (Updated 2013-07-10)
CorpWatch: Glimmerglass Intercepts Undersea Cable Traffic for Spy Agencies

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