Even as President Obama meets on Tuesday with heads of major technology companies about governmental snooping, some of those companies are moving to get more control of their own data. A key component in this strategy: get more backbone.
The Internet's backbone, the major cables that carry its traffic, is a key vulnerability for these companies, since it is the largest component in their data flows that they do not control. Last month, The New York Times reported that the U.S. National Security Agency was capable of spying on Google and Yahoo users, among others, without having direct access to those companies' data centers.
Citing unnamed sources "knowledgeable about Google and Yahoo's infrastructure," the Times said that the NSA could tap into the fiber-optic backbones operated by such providers as Verizon, the BT Group and Level 3.
Over 100,000 Miles
A report in Monday's Wall Street Journal pointed to new investments by Google and Facebook in particular for underwater and underground cables, long-term agreements for leasing "dark" fiber -- dormant network carrying capacity -- and thus securing additional bandwidth, and developing their own network hardware components. Google now has control over more than 100,000 miles of cable, larger than Sprint's 40,000 miles of network in the U.S. In addition to laying cable to support its data centers, Google has also been installing ultrafast fiber optic networks to customers in a few areas, such as Kansas City.
In the summer, Facebook began transmitting data over its dark fiber in Europe, and Amazon, Microsoft, IBM and Salesforce have similarly been increasing their infrastructure. Among other investments, Facebook has backed the building of a 6,200-mile Internet cable across the Pacific Ocean to support users in Asia.
The alleged aims of this investment are to lower costs, guarantee capacity, and improve performance. Much of the investment is also partly being driven by cloud computing, as the giants position themselves to provide low-latency, high-capability platforms worldwide. Such infrastructure will undoubtedly accomplish some or all of those goals.
Meeting with Obama
But the companies are also aware of reports in the documents made public by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, including one from January, that showed millions of records were sent every day to NSA headquarters in Maryland from Yahoo's and Google's networks. For the 30 days preceding the January document, that meant over 181 million records, plus metadata.
In response to that revelation, Google has expressed "outrage" and Yahoo has insisted it did not grant access.
While costs, performance and control are certainly on the minds of tech companies, so is the NSA's access, which damages their reputation and puts their data security in jeopardy. After all, if the NSA can do this, what about other nations or groups?
In a meeting Tuesday with President Obama, a group of 15 major technology companies called for measures to end such surveillance and urged him "to move aggressively on reform." The group included the chief executives of Google, Apple and Yahoo.
On Monday, a federal judge ruled that a NSA program to collect telephone metadata en masse probably violated the Fourth Amendment's guarantee against unreasonable search and seizure. The court granted legal standing to plaintiffs in a suit challenging the NSA program, so they could proceed in their legal effort.