Dianne Feinstein Accidentally Confirms That NSA Tapped The Internet Backbone

from the but-of-course dept

It’s widely known that the NSA has taps connected to the various telco networks, thanks in large part to AT&T employee Mark Klein who blew the whistle on AT&T’s secret NSA room in San Francisco. What was unclear was exactly what kind of access the NSA had. Various groups like the EFF and CDT have both been asking the administration to finally come clean, in the name of transparency, if they’re tapping backbone networks to snarf up internet communications like email. So far, the administration has declined to elaborate. Back in August, when the FISA court declassified its ruling about NSA violations, the third footnote, though heavily redacted, did briefly discuss this “upstream” capability:

In short, “upstream” capabilities are tapping the backbone itself, via the willing assistance of the telcos (who still have remained mostly silent on all of this) as opposed to “downstream” collection, which requires going to the internet companies directly. The internet companies have been much more resistant to government attempts to get access to their accounts. And thus, it’s a big question as to what exactly the NSA can collect via its taps on the internet backbone, and the NSA and its defenders have tried to remain silent on this point, as you can see from the redactions above.

However, as Kevin Bankston notes, during Thursday’s Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, Dianne Feinstein more or less admitted that they get emails via “upstream” collection methods. As you can see in the following clip, Feinstein interrupts a discussion to read a prepared “rebuttal” to a point being made, and in doing so clearly says that the NSA can get emails via upstream collections:

Upstream collection… occurs when NSA obtains internet communications, such as e-mails, from certain US companies that operate the Internet background, i.e., the companies that own and operate the domestic telecommunications lines over which internet traffic flows.

She clearly means “backbone” rather than “background.” She’s discussing this in an attempt to defend the NSA’s “accidental” collection of information it shouldn’t have had. But that point is not that important. Instead, the important point is that she’s now admitted what most people suspected, but which the administration has totally avoided admitting for many, many years since the revelations made by Mark Klein.

So, despite years of trying to deny that the NSA can collect email and other communications directly from the backbone (rather than from the internet companies themselves), Feinstein appears to have finally let the cat out of the bag, perhaps without realizing it.

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Comments on “Dianne Feinstein Accidentally Confirms That NSA Tapped The Internet Backbone”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Hmmm, I’ve worked in the industry for quite a while, and I’ve yet to see this single “The Backbone” people keep talking about.
I’m certain they tap in at large co-location facilities and aggregation points for overseas traffic, but there is not one Universal Backbone which all traffic crosses for them to tap in the first place.

Anonymous Coward says:

The underseas cables that carry the internet from continent to continent might not be a literal backbone but it is certainly tapped by the US for gathering data. This used to be done underwater by the submarine SS Parche (SSN-683) which has been retired. The USS Jimmy Carter (SSN-23) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Jimmy_Carter_%28SSN-23%29 , which is now undergoing it’s sea trials are now expected to take it’s place in function.

The SS Parche’s mission was exposed by a spy giving the info to Russia. The Parche had to return every few months to pick up the data from the recorder undersea. Only after the mission’s exposure, the Russians went and got the recorder and it now resides in one of their museums.

Whether you call the undersea cable a backbone or just an internet pipe does not change this is known, discovered, and happened.

James Smith (profile) says:

Free Country> LMAO!

It isn’t as if any rational person still believes the USA is a free country. Think about it. No-warrant wire taps, indefinite detention of citizens without charges, approval of rendition of prisoners and torture, stop and frisk without probable cause, search and seizure without a warrant, no-knock entry, confiscation and destruction of cameras that might have been used to film police acting illegally, police brutality, police shootings that go without investigation, managed news, and the civil-rights destroying “Patriot” Act.

Acts of police behaving illegally, with shootings, Tasers, and unwarranted violence now appear almost daily. Rarely are these offenses punished. Most often “an investigation” is claimed, but soon forgotten.

In addition, the USA, with 5% of the world population, has 25% of all of the prisoners in the world. That means the USA has the most people in prison of any nation in history. Even by percentage of residents incarcerated, not just sheer numbers. USA is # 1!

 Does any of that sound like a free country?

As Dwight D. Eisenhower said about communism, “It’s like slicing sausage. First they out off a small slice. That isn’t worth fighting over. Then they take another small slice that isn’t worth fighting over. Then another and another. Finally, all you have left is the string and that isn’t worth fighting over, either.

Bill Stewart says:

DiFi actually leaked useful info

Encrypted SMTP doesn’t protect your email against “downstream” wiretapping, subpoenaed directly from your mailbox at the ISP who handles your email, but it can protect you against “upstream” wiretapping of your mail while it’s in transit.

Also, the ECPA, to the extent that the NSA bothers to obey it, strictly limits in-transit wiretapping of email, so it’s possible that they can be prosecuted or at least forbidden to use any of the data they’ve collected in court.

GET REAL says:


Come on folks, the NSA is tapping the Internet! really… WE ALL TAP THE INTERNET By connecting to it. Its an OPEN GLOBAL NETWORK. I would expect not only the NSA but many other Governments from around the world via various corporate fronts at many network exchanges TAPPING in to the Internet to sniff what is out in the open. And all governments sniff at points of landing for undersea cables as part of the conditions for granting right of way.

Anonymous Coward says:


Excuse me, a lot of public servants that were forbidden from tapping the internet for news didn’t know the government actually taps the internet to read others emails, you see according to the rules, this is wrong and can end in employment termination. So if you ask them they will all say this is news for them, doubt? I dare you find one public employee that will tell you otherwise.

GET REAL says:


You are confusing the issues of workplace regulations with the FACT that the Internet is a public space – always has been – no one entity comprises the Internet -thats why its called the ‘Inter’ net. So yes while one agency may have a rule that states you can not do something as part of your job it means nothing to another agency that does not have the policy. And further, if a public servant did fall under such policy all you could do at best is accuse them of not following the policy related to their job but not they they broke any law of privacy as privacy is not a given preset of the Internet. You no more privacy on the internet than you would have at a public park. So saying the NSA taps the Internet is the same as a cop on a public street with a radar gun conducting a speed trap.

Ninja (profile) says:


So you have access to everything that’s encrypted just because you can see it flowing? We can all see cars flowing and with some stalking we can define their paths but can we see/know everything the car is carrying without violating the other person’s property?

The answer is no. The corporations you mention cannot
see what’s encrypted. The fact that the NSA has unrestricted access is news. Or at least confirmation of what many suspected.

Anonymous Coward says:

Google inadvertently collects freely available, arguably useless wifi bits and they’re found guilty of wiretapping and will likely pay a fine.

The United States government deliberately wiretaps the internet and willfully violates our constitutional rights by purposely collecting our emails and they can wave the “we didn’t mean to” flag?

Something don’t seem right…

GET REAL says:

Re: Google Wifi

Again, you’re confusing the issues. Accessing a computing system that belongs to someone else without permission is trespass whether you do it freely or not and whether its secured or not. Plus, Wifi is not the Internet. When you send packets of data from your computer via your private network (wifi or otherwise) to the Internet those packets are private until they leave your network meaning your home router say. Beyond that your are now on the Open Internet and no-one makes any claim or guarantee of privacy over those packets as they travel from network to network to arrive at a given end-point. Thats why we should all use encryption to keep bad guys out. If you think the bad guys are the NSA then fair enough but that another issue altogether.

Anonymous Coward says:

All the internet is "upstream"

Everything is upstream except for the final leg to your own computer, until then it’s “upstream” to servers, bridges, routers, DNS’s, everywhere, until it hit’s the server for your own computer, then it is “downstream” to your pc..

There is no internet backbone, it’s a WEB not a central nervous system.

Someone said “it’s the undersea cables’ that are the backbone, so how does domestic traffic get around ???

If you visit a web site that is hosted in your own city does it travel on an international undersea cable to get there ??

Background traffic is certainly a more accurate term that ‘backbone’, I am sure she/he said exactly what they meant to say..

BTW: Masnick, when are you going to take off this STUPD CENSORSHIP on my posts ??

Why wont you let everyone participate in the free speech debates you start ???

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