Inside some of the major data hubs that control the flow of intercontinental internet traffic, the US government has required that special security teams are on staff to ensure that its surveillance requests are quickly fulfilled, reports The Washington Post. Even at hubs controlled by foreign companies and located abroad, these teams consist of American citizens carrying government security clearances. And in at least one instance, the data hub's foreign operator is required to maintain a remote operations base within the US that the federal government can access with only 30 minutes notice.
The security teams have been around for a decade
These security teams aren't new. The Post reports they've been publicly detailed since 2003, when they were first established as part of growing security efforts after 9/11 — but their existence helps to explain one of the ways that the government is able tap into internet traffic for surveillance. It was previously revealed that federal officials were recommended to use two separate forms of internet surveillance: direct forms of surveillance through the PRISM program, and broader "upstream" forms of surveillance through these direct taps into the cables that carry all forms of internet traffic.
According to the Post, officials with access to these cables are able to enter an email address into a specialized piece of software, and then pull out all traffic headed to and from that address. Britain's intelligence agency, the Government Communications Headquarters, has also been reported to use a similar method for directly tapping into the web. But while the US government can perform surveillance using its access to the fiber optic cable hubs, the agreements it holds with the hubs' operators aren't focused on it. Instead, the main intent is said to be securing US communications against foreign threats and spying.
The US government was apparently able to negotiate these agreements even with foreign entities by leveraging existing legal regulations. In some cases, officials held up proposed business dealings using the Federal Communications Commission's oversight of telecommunications. According to the Post, this helped government lawyers in persuading foreign companies to allow the US to maintain such extensive access. It's unclear just how many companies the US has made these deals with, and for now, the extent of the federal government's access remains classified.