Tuesday 20 April 2021
News ID: 88260
Publish Date: 05 March 2021 - 21:30
LONDON (Middle East Eye) -- The growth of Middle Eastern fiber optic cable networks has given Western signals intelligence agencies unprecedented access to the region’s data and communications traffic.
"There is no question that, in the broadest sense, from Port Said [in Egypt] to Oman is one of the greatest areas for telecommunications traffic and therefore surveillance. Everything about the Middle East goes through that region except for the odd link through Turkey,” said Duncan Campbell, an investigative journalist specializing in surveillance since 1975.
The Five Eyes, a signals intelligence (SIGINT) alliance of the U.S., the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, has been snooping on the Middle East since the network was formed during the Second World War.
The key players are the U.S.’s National Security Agency (NSA), and the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), utilizing both known and secret facilities in the region to collect data.
The Middle East is a hotbed of surveillance for obvious reasons: its strategic political-economic importance, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and political divisions between the allies of the Five Eyes and their adversaries, from militant groups to countries such as Iran and Syria.
While all conventional forms of surveillance are carried out, from airspace surveillance to tapping phone lines, the region is a strategic asset for mass surveillance due to the current routes of fiber optic cables.
"The importance of cables is still largely unknown by the average person. They think smartphones are wireless and it goes through the air but they don’t realize it is through cables,” said Alan Mauldin, research director at telecommunications research firm TeleGeography in Washington.
Spy agencies have tapped into fiber optic cables to intercept vast volumes of data, from phone calls to the content of emails, to web browsing history and metadata. Financial, military and government data also passes through cables.
Such intercepted data is sifted by analysts, while filters extract material based on the NSA and GCHQ’s 40,000 search terms – subjects, phone numbers and email addresses - for closer inspection.
"This physical system of fiber optic cables joins the major countries of the world and carries over 95 percent of international voice and data traffic. Given the importance of undersea cables, they are poorly protected by international law,” said Athina Karatzogianni, an academic researching the importance and regulation of undersea cables.
"They represent perhaps the most extreme example of states privatizing critical infrastructure but failing to extend protection.”
 
Geostrategic Cables

Between the Red Sea and Iran there are no terrestrial fiber optic cables crossing the Arabian peninsula. All internet traffic going from Europe to Asia either passes through the Caucuses and Iran, using the Europe Persia Express Gateway (EPEG), or via the far more congested Egyptian and Red Sea routes.
Egypt is a major chokepoint, handling traffic from Europe to the Middle East, Asia and Africa, and vice versa. The 15 cables that cross Egypt between the Mediterranean and Red seas handle between 17 percent to 30 percent of the world population’s internet traffic, or the data of 1.3 billion to 2.3 billion people.
Egyptian Cable Connections
Geography and politics has led to this particular setup. "You cannot build a link through Syria or Iran due to the conflict and the political situation, and the war in Yemen takes out another terrestrial option, so [cables] take another path,” said Guy Zibi, founder of South African market research firm Xalam Analytics.
"There are only a few areas globally that are so highly strategic; the Red Sea is one of them, and in the African context, Djibouti.”
Most cables run under the sea, making the land crossing of Egypt more of an exception than the rule. Subsea cables are preferred as they are considered more secure, with greater vulnerability when cables hit land and then run terrestrially. "It is difficult to go under the sea and harm cables,” said Zibi.
The cables that run across Egypt and via the Suez Canal have logistical risks, such as breakages by anchors in the Suez’s shallow waters or from human interference.
"In 2013, three divers with hand tools cut the main cable connecting Egypt with Europe, reducing Egypt’s internet bandwidth by 60 percent,” said Karatzogianni.

Red Sea to Persian Gulf Cables

The cables running through Egypt do not give the Egyptian state free rein to intercept data on behalf of the Five Eyes, however, despite the importance that President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a former director of military

intelligence, and his son, Mahmoud, the deputy head of the General Intelligence Directorate (GID), place on mass surveillance of Egyptian citizens.
"The Egyptians are superbly placed to have access [to data on the cables], but are not considered a trustworthy or stable partner. It is not where you want to put slick high-end [surveillance] equipment,” said Campbell.
Despite its strategic importance, Egypt is not part of any wider SIGINT networks. The Five Eyes alliance has information-sharing arrangements in place with some European countries and Japan and South Korea, for example, to intercept data from Russia and China. The NSA also has a relationship with Sweden, because it is a landing point for all cable traffic from Russia’s Baltic region.
By contrast, the U.S. has less formal information-sharing relationships with the Middle East region including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UAE.

Secret Tapping

The Five Eyes could be tapping cables in Egypt or its territorial waters, however. Documents leaked by Edward Snowden in 2013 refer to a clandestine NSA base in the Middle East called DancingOasis, also referred to as DGO.
"It is extremely secret. Significantly it was built without [the host] government knowing, which is an immense risk to the Americans,” said Campbell. "Where it is located is pure guesswork. Candidate one is Jordan, then Saudi Arabia, and three, Egypt. Geographically the only other place would be Oman, from where Britain covers the Persian Gulf.”
The cables connecting Europe, Africa and Asia run across Egypt and then down the Red Sea to the Bab el-Mandeb strait between Yemen and Djibouti. The cables heading east veer off towards Oman. To the west of the capital Muscat is a GCHQ surveillance site in Seeb, with the code name Circuit.
"It is very close to where the submarine cables come in. Virtually all cables take a landfall between Seeb and Muscat. How convenient is that?” said Campbell.




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