Potential NSA spying on SA networks

Towards the end of 2013, German news website Spiegel Online reported that the NSA had essentially tapped the SEA-Me-We–4 undersea cable.

SEA-Me-We–4 (SMW4) is a former partner cable to Seacom which was used to carry traffic from the North of Africa to Europe. Outages on SMW4 had previously caused significant downtime on the Seacom network.

Quoting leaked NSA documents, the report said that the NSA had managed to get access to information about the structure of the network on 13 February 2013.

The document went on to promise that the NSA would conduct more operations against “this and other cable systems”, Spiegel reported.

Spiegel’s article followed an earlier report on the website of the Dutch newspaper, NRC Handelsblad, which cited an NSA presentation that showed how the intelligence service used “Computer Network Exploitation” to gather information.

The presentation indicated that the NSA had 20 access points to a number of large cable systems, with points of infiltration indicated in Southern Europe, the United Kingdom, and the Horn of Africa.

It would appear that Spiegel’s report confirms, and provides more detail to the document NRC wrote about, though it is unclear if SEA-Me-We–4 is the only undersea cable in the Mediterranean that was compromised.

NSA infiltrated networks slide, nrc.nl (scaled)
NSA infiltrated networks slide, nrc.nl

Following Spiegel’s report, a spokesperson for French telecoms giant Orange told Reuters that they plan to take legal action. “We want to know more about the eventuality that Orange data may have been intercepted,” the spokesperson was quoted as saying.

Seacom and Telkom were asked whether they too would take legal action against the NSA, or join already ongoing legal action.

Telkom did not comment by the time of publication, though it is understood that it currently uses providers other than SMW4 for trans-Mediterranean capacity, similar to Seacom.

Seacom, on the other hand, disavowed a partnership with SMW4.

When queried about its earlier relationship with SMW4, Seacom declined to answer questions on when it stopped using SMW4, and which provider it was using in its place.

Instead, Seacom provided MyBroadband with the following statement:

SEACOM is not a member of the SMW4 consortium and does not own any SMW4 capacity. During outages impacting multiple systems in the Mediterranean Sea in 2013, SEACOM utilised alternative capacity on other trans-Med systems including SMW4 to restore services on a short-term basis. Emergency capacity on these other systems was in use for less than a month. We have no further comment on this issue.

More Seacom-SMW4 articles

SEACOM outages and cable progress (April 2010 – December 2010)

SEACOM’s SMW4 problems continue (March 2011)

Seacom services restored but problems remain (March 2013)

More on spying and information privacy in SA

SA Spy Files link deepens to the tune of R3.6m

South Africa’s link to The Spy Files

Spyware servers in SA: more details emerge

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Potential NSA spying on SA networks