AT&T network revealed as the most useful asset of spymaster NSA

AT&T has been unveiled as one of the NSA’s biggest assets as the intelligence agency proves to be a difficult rash to get rid of.

In years gone by, the NSA has not been the shining light of the intelligence community. What started off as a little bit of spying on leaders of movements protesting the Vietnam War and economic espionage, evolved into warrantless wiretapping, illegally obtaining evidence against US citizens and various different examples of unethical data mining. Now it has been revealed AT&T is the telco harbouring the NSA’s continued and questionable Big Brother ambitions.

According to The Intercept, eight AT&T buildings across the US are used for the NSAs surveillance initiative, known as ‘Fairview’. The programme dates back to 1985, and gives the agency direct access to raw data that passes through the US, including emails, web browsing, social media and any other form of unencrypted online activity. The eight hubs in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York City, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, provide the backbone of the project, for which AT&T is the only telco involved.

While AT&T has a significant network which would prove to be an asset to any intelligence agency, it is the relationships with other organizations which seems to be one of the most important factors here. ‘Peering’ is a common practice in the communications world, allowing telcos to offload traffic onto another telco’s network should congestion get to a certain point. AT&T not only has these relationships with US telcos, but many international ones such as Telia, Tata Communications, Telecom Italia, and Deutsche Telekom, offering a glutton of data to anyone monitoring the network.

Only eight of AT&T facilities across the US offer access to the networks’ ‘common backbone’, though through these data centres the NSA can access a significant amount of information, both domestic and international. Although the data exchange during the ‘peering process’ takes place outside of the AT&T network initially, the data is then routed through the telco’s network. Mark Klein, a former AT&T technician claims it is an incredibly efficient means of monitoring as everyone will cross the AT&T network at some point through the practice of peering. Data is collected through AT&T access links, before being transferred to a processing facility, codenamed ‘Pinecone’, and then onto two NSA systems, before making its way to the spymaster’s HQ in Fort Meade in Maryland.

The NSA calls this idea ‘home field advantage’. It describes the location and strategic importance of the US as home of many of the world’s largest internet companies. With the vast amount of the world’s intercontinental internet traffic travelling through subsea fibre optic cables, a large portion of this information pass across the cables is routed at one point through the US. Data travels across the internet in the cheapest fashion, not the most direct, therefore the bounties offered to the NSA are significant. 197 petabytes of data pass across what AT&T describes as the ‘world’s most powerful network’ every day.

Once at NSA HQ, the data is integrated into two databases called Mainway and Marina, which store and analyse the metadata. The information is then made available to NSA employees through tool named XKeyScore. Here the NSA can access everything from the content of emails to web-browser history and webcam photos.

Although we should hardly be surprised by the notion the NSA is playing an active role in snooping through the lives of citizens, the fact AT&T is being described as a demonstrating an ‘extreme willingness to help’ and ‘aggressively involved’ is a bit more difficult to swallow. The consumer relationship with providers is built on trust, and this does seem to be somewhat of a direct violation of it.

Companies such as Google, Microsoft and Facebook, do co-operate with authorities when legally obliged to, though these requests are seemingly put through the stress test before being accepting; passing across personal information seems to be only in the circumstances where saying no is not an option. Few have been described in such buddying terms as the NSA does in congratulating the telco.

What is worth noting is AT&T can be legally compelled to co-operate with intelligence agencies in the US, though there seems to be little resistance.

We could see commercial 5G products as soon as next year

After years of probing, posturing and prognosticating the telecoms industry has committed to the first 5G New Radio standard.

At Mobile World Congress earlier this year the decision was unilaterally made, with some dissent, to fork the development of 5G NR into standalone and non-standalone versions. The apparent need for this fork was so that we could get on with the air interface part without having to wait for the core and all the attendant mind-boggling complexity to be finalised.

As a consequence, while much of the 5G core will have to wait until the middle of next year to reach its first standard ‘freeze’ (i.e. the work done so far is set in stone), we have been able to freeze the first standard for just the air interface component of 5G. Because this will still rely on the legacy 4G core it is referred to as non-standalone (NSA – not to be confused with the National Security Agency, or indeed No Strings Attached).

To get a better sense of the significance of this we spoke to Ulises Olvera-Hernandez of InterDigital, who is an active participant in the system architecture group of the 3GPP and has generally been elbows-deep in the 5G standardisation process from the start. “This is a very significant drop for the 5G specification,” he said.

“The physical and control layers are fully developed at this point. This is very significant because the base station and terminal chips can now be made. The radio will be pretty much the same between NSA and SA. The Summer 2018 release will bring the SA radio, which will mean the NSA radio we have just standardized will be able to connect to the new 5G core.”

5G NR NSA SA

As has been extensively covered, 5G is about a lot more than just more 4G – i.e. improved data rates. The world also wants 5G to enable massive IoT with technology that combines very low energy use with limitless scalability. And as if that’s not enough we also need 5G to offer the kind of robustness, efficiency and flexibility that will allow utopian use-cases such as autonomous vehicles and robotic surgery.

“This release includes something that is referred to as ‘ultra-reliable, low latency communications’,” said Olvera-Hernandez. “In simple terms this requires a new radio interface that is able to respond much quicker.” He also said the whole IoT aspect has not been covered in this release but will be addressed subsequently.

One other significance of this milestone is how it positions the 3GPP in the overall 5G standard mix. This stuff is ultimately adjudicated by the ITU (International Telecommunications Union) via its IMT2020 group and the deadline is looming. You can see the submission timeline below.

IMT2020 submission timeplan

“This also prepares for the IMT2020 submission,” said Olvera-Hernandez. “3GPP will be one of the radio interface technologies that are proposed and the first submission is due in February 2018. So that is a key aspect of this release.”

But the most immediate and conspicuous consequence of freezing the 5G RAN standard will be the legitimization of the use of 5G by the marketing teams of any company even remotely associated with the telecoms world. They hardly need encouraging, of course, but the 5G spam we have had to endure to date will pale into insignificance compared with the deluge to come.

“Companies will now be able to say they have a 5G radio interface and that their core network is ‘5G ready’,” said Olvera-Hernandez. 5G ready. The phrase alone is enough to make those of us who earn a living by spending an unhealthy about of time banging on about phone stuff shudder in grim anticipation. We will probably see the first 5G ready claims as soon as everyone has got over their New Year hangovers but, more surprisingly, we might even see actual commercial products to back that claim up before the end of the year.

“I believe we will see 5G in the form of NSA in 2018,” said Olvera-Hernandez. “I think that towards the end of next year you will see commercial 5G products, as a year should be sufficient to make this happen. We will see voice carried in a better way in the 5G system than it has been with 4G because there has been a complete re-engineering of the quality-of-service aspects of 4G.”

The decision to go with NSA first seems pretty sensible on one level, but while it has sped up the process by which various telecoms industry stakeholders can legitimately claim to have 5G products and services, it also creates a separate set of complexities. The marketing frenzy is inevitable but it does risk setting unrealistic expectations, which will be exacerbated if the process of reconciling NSA with SA doesn’t go smoothly.

If all this has merely served to whet your appetite for telecoms technicalities you can have yourself a very geeky Christmas by reading this 3GPP brief introduction (!) to the 5G system architecture. On a lighter note we’ll leave you with this photo of the 3GPP architecture working group on the lash, having hit their milestone.

3GPP drinks