Data centers are regarded as the Fort Knoxes of the digital age: heavily guarded and impregnable to any intruder that tries to get their hands on the data within.
So how does a government agency like the NSA manage get a hold of data from the likes of Google and Yahoo? Easy. Instead of taking the gold from Fort Knox, the intelligence agency may be hijacking the data on the road, an Internet highwayman that preys on the one vulnerability every data center has: data has to go somewhere eventually.
The "road," in this case, are the fiber-optic cables that comprise the backbone of the Internet. According to the New York Times, Google and Yahoo are increasingly suspicious that Level 3 Communications, which provides the Internet cables for the two Internet service vendors, is allowing the NSA to grab data in transit between data centers.
...[O]n Level 3’s fiber-optic cables that connected those massive computer farms—information was unencrypted and an easier target for government intercept efforts, according to three people with knowledge of Google’s and Yahoo’s systems who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Level 3 isn't the only company that runs the fiber-optic cables: companies like BT Group, Verizon Communications and Vodafone Group are in this category as well. It is not known for sure whether any of these companies are actually providing access to intra-data center communications, but given the NSA use of secret warrants with attached gag orders to subpoena data directly from data center providers, it's not seem all that far of a leap to think that the agency is doing the same for the network vendors.
The lesson here for all of us who use the Internet? If the government really wants your data, it's going to get it, one way or another.
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