Search Blog Posts

Friday, August 23, 2013

Glimmerglass Intercepts Undersea Cable Traffic for Spy Agencies

Glimmerglass, a northern California company that sells optical fiber technology, offers government agencies a software product called “CyberSweep” to intercept signals on undersea cables. 

The company says their technology can analyze Gmail and Yahoo! Mail as well as social media like Facebook and Twitter to discover “actionable intelligence.”

Could this be the technology that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) is using to tap global communications? The company says it counts several intelligence agencies among its customers but refuses to divulge details. One thing is certain – it is not the only company to offer such capabilities – so if such data mining is not already taking place, that day is not far off.

“Revolutions in communications technologies are usually followed by revolutions in collection capabilities,” Jeffrey Richelson, a senior fellow at the National Security Archives and the author of the definitive guide to the U.S. intelligence agencies, told CorpWatch.

The recent leaks by whistleblower Edward Snowden to the Guardian newspaper specifically suggest that the NSA is tapping undersea cables although no details on the specific technology have yet been published. Notably Snowden has revealed evidence that the NSA paid £15.5 million ($25 million) in 2009 to “radically” upgrade a listening stationoperated by its U.K. equivalent – the Government Communications Head Quarters (GCHQ) in Bude, north Cornwall, England, where many of the cables surface.

If GCHQ and the NSA installed Glimmerglass’s commercial optical fiber switching technology on the undersea cables to tap the torrent of data that crosses the Atlantic, they will be able to pair it up with CyberSweep to make sense of the information, according to advertising claims made in a treasure trove of documents on dozens of surveillance contractors released by Wikileaks.

Privacy experts say that if the NSA is using this Glimmerglass technology, it will prove whistleblower Edward Snowden’s claim that the government is collecting everyone’s communications, regardless of their citizenship or innocence.

Vanee Vines, a spokesperson for the NSA, declined to comment to CorpWatch on either Glimmerglass or the tapping of the undersea cables. Glimmerglass officials did not return multiple email and phone calls.


On the Glimmerglass website, the company claims that CyberSweep can process optical signals to “extract the data source format” 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.”

More details on what Glimmerglass claims CyberSweep can do are explained in “Paradigm Shifts” – a confidential 18 page Powerpoint presentation made in 2011 by Jim Donnelly, the Glimmerglass vice president of North American sales. The document was released by Wikileaks as part of the Spy Files series in December of that year.

On page five of the presentation, Glimmerglass notes that CyberSweep is 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.” On the following page, it notes that its product can be used at “submarine landing stations” – a reference to the locations where the undersea cables are connected to terrestrial systems.

On page eight, Glimmerglass provides specific examples of what it can gather – like Gmail, Yahoo! Mail as well as Facebook and Twitter. Over the next four pages it offers screenshots of these capabilities.

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.

A third graphic is a grid of phone calls made by an individual with a pane that allows an operator to select and listen to audio of any specific conversation. Other images show similar demonstrations of monitoring webmail and instant message chats.

Where is this product being used? In a product video on the company website, Glimmerglass states that their optical data management products have been used by the U.S. intelligence agencies for the last five years. The video specifically mentions data transmissions from Predator drones and well as the tapping of undersea fiber optic cables, but it does not go into any details.

“The challenge of managing information has become the challenge of managing the light,” says an announcer. “With Glimmerglass, customers have full control of massive flows of intelligence from the moment they access them.”