The US conducts a broad-based surveillance of fibre-optic networks. Photo: Glenn Hunt
The US government had a problem: Spying in the digital age required access to the fibre-optic cables traversing the world's oceans, carrying torrents of data at the speed of light
And one of the biggest operators of those cables was being sold to an Asian firm, which might complicate American surveillance efforts.
Enter "Team Telecom."
In months of private talks, the team of lawyers from the FBI and the departments of Defense, Justice and Homeland Security demanded that the company maintain what amounted to an internal corporate cell of American citizens with government clearances. Among their jobs, documents show, was ensuring that surveillance requests got fulfilled quickly and confidentially.
This "Network Security Agreement," signed in September 2003 by Global Crossing, became a model for other deals over the past decade as foreign investors increasingly acquired pieces of the world's telecommunications infrastructure.
The publicly available agreements offer a window into efforts by US officials to safeguard their ability to conduct surveillance through the fibre-optic networks that carry a huge majority of the world's voice and internet traffic.
The agreements, whose main purpose is to secure the US telecommunications networks against foreign spying and other actions that could harm national security, do not authorise surveillance.
But they ensure that when US government agencies seek access to the massive amounts of data flowing through their networks, the companies have systems in place to provide it securely, say people familiar with the deals.
Negotiating leverage has come from a seemingly mundane government power: the authority of the Federal Communications Commission to approve cable licenses. In deals involving a foreign company, say people familiar with the process, the FCC has held up approval for many months while the squadron of lawyers dubbed Team Telecom developed security agreements that went beyond what's required by the laws governing electronic eavesdropping.
The security agreement for Global Crossing, whose fibre-optic network connected 27 nations and four continents, required the company to have a "Network Operations Center" on US soil that could be visited by government officials with 30 minutes of warning.
Surveillance requests, meanwhile, had to be handled by US citizens screened by the government and sworn to secrecy - in many cases prohibiting information from being shared even with the company's executives and directors.
"Our telecommunications companies have no real independence in standing up to the requests of government or in revealing data," said Susan Crawford, a Yeshiva University law professor and former Obama White House official. "This is yet another example where that's the case."
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