Did NSA Secretly Tap the Internet Backbone?

Someday, the unraveling of the National Security Agency's spying on virtually everyone might make a great spy movie. In the latest revelation, there are reports the secretive federal agency may have tapped Google and Yahoo through major Internet backbone providers.

On Monday, a story in The New York Times asked how the National Security Agency could spy on Google and Yahoo users without having direct access to those companies' data centers, which have Mission Impossible-levels of security. The Times said that "people knowledgeable about Google and Yahoo's infrastructure" believe the NSA tapped into the fiber-optic cables of such Net backbone providers as Verizon, the BT Group and Level 3.

In particular, the story points at Level 3, the largest backbone provider on the planet. Data traveling through the backbones was not encrypted, although both Google and Yahoo are now encrypting the data they send through the backbones. Level 3 responded to the Times to say that it complies "with laws in every country where we operate," and provides governmental access to customer data "only when we are compelled to do so by the laws in the country where the data is located."

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It's not yet clear if Level 3 was a willing participant in such an arrangement. Although the Internet has a seemingly infinite number of destinations, there are only a handful of major backbone providers. If accurate, the report points to the NSA's ability to tap virtually any corporate data center without their knowledge or consent.

Earlier this month, reports surfaced that the documents released by former NSA contract employee Edward Snowden showed the NSA had tapped the transmissions to and from Google's and Yahoo's data centers. The taps meant that the agency had access to hundreds of millions of user accounts, many of which are owned by Americans.

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