Intelligence: April 8, 2005

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American intelligence agencies have less trouble getting information, than in finding ways to store it. This situation changed in the 1990s as fiber optic cable became the cheapest way to move huge amounts of electronic data at the speed of light. One of the major money pits during the dot.com boom was companies laying hundreds of thousands of kilometers of fiber optic cable across land and under the sea, replacing the older, much lower capacity, copper cables. The U.S. has a modified nuclear attack submarine that could tap into those undersea cables, and did so successfully several times. But these new fiber optic cables moved enormous amounts of data, with five gigabytes a second being a common throughput. To give you a sense of what that means, consider that some iPods have 60 gigabyte hard drives on them (using tiny, one inch hard drives). But a fiber optic cable can fill up that 60 gig drive in 12 seconds. It can fill 300 of those drives in an hour, 7200 in a day, and 216,000 in a month. Even the U.S. Navys newest and largest attack sub, the USS Jimmy Carter, which is specially equipped to tap into fiber optic cables, cant hold enough hard drive or tape drives to hold more than a week or so worth of data. The problem is no longer one of grabbing the data, but of quickly finding what you need. The USS Jimmy Carter is receiving hundreds of millions of dollars worth of new equipment, including some very powerful computers. Like its smaller, Cold War predecessor, the USS Parche, the Carter has an underwater joining room for splicing, and tapping into, fiber optic cable. This is a very tricky task, considering the high voltage running through the cable, and the need to tap in without interrupting service, and alerting the cable operator.

Then again, some 90 percent of transoceanic fiber optic cables eventually cross American or British territory. So getting into the cable is not impossible, or very secret. What is kept very secret is any news about the software, and other technology, that would be used to scan the data stream coming through the  fiber optic cable. But that raises another question. How long are you going to park the USS Carter over that tap in order to filter its throughput? All the more reason to believe most of the taps are being made on land, or close to land so another cable can be run to a land station containing computer equipment to handle the filtering. But the USS Carter would have its hands full tapping all the new undersea fiber optic cables out there that dont cross friendly territory, or planting other sensors. Whatever the USS Carter ends up doing, it will be decades before the general public knows the details of what is inside that sub, and what exactly it does. 

 


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