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We couldn’t help but listen

A fiber-optic cable, suspended from buoys, is rolled out by a specialized ship off La Guaira, Venezuelan coast. (AP file photo)

The NSA surveillance story seems to have astounded the world for the sheer sweep of the conversations the U.S. government is able to record. But in a way, we couldn’t help ourselves.

It was an accident of technological history. You see, in the 1990s, as the Internet began to blossom, American companies went crazy laying fiber optic cable. If you look at a map of these cables, you see a literal web with the U.S. in the center.

I came across a talk by Harvard Internet expert Susan Landau where she explains this:

“This is the map of the world, and as you notice, the United States is in the middle, which always happens when the U.S. designs the map. But in this particular case, there’s good reason for the U.S. to be in the middle – the red lines are the fiber optic cables. What happens is when you have a call from Europe to Asia, it often goes through the United States.”

But you’re saying, ‘Dave, wait a minute, I thought overseas calls were carried by satellite.’ Well they USED to be, but customers hate that annoying satellite delay.

“But if you do it by a fiber optic cable, there’s no quarter second delay. Now, if you do a call from Brazil to Argentina by way of Miami, it goes into the United States and it’s very easy to physically, wiretap it.”

And so began the process to define a legal way to tap calls that were technically between two foreign countries, but physically went right through the United States.

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