The Israeli Bit Of The NSA’s PRISM

Narus Prism ImageIt had to happen: the technology behind the NSA’s PRISM system looks like it came from an Israeli company.

On Wednesday Steve Gibson’s Security Now podcast on the TWIT network put forward the most believable explanation of what the NSA PRISM program really is. All the following work is his, I’m just posting it here because he works in tweets and audio and this needs to be written down.

Working from testimony given in 2006 by a former employee of AT&T, Steve put forward the theory that PRISM is an NSA program to put a tap on specific points of the internet.

You don’t need (or want) to see or store all the transient traffic on the internet. What you want is the traffic to and from the most important sites. Sites like Google, Facebook and the others mentioned in all the press about PRISM. So what you do is you go to the box up the street from these big companies and you put the modern equivalent of a wire tap there, just outside their doors.

That’s why, when asked, all these companies vehemently denied that the NSA had direct access to their “servers”. That’s probably true. What they had was direct access to most of the stuff going in or out of their servers. And interestingly, this traffic is travelling on what is a public network. The status of the traffic here, public or private is not so clear.

The modern internet runs over high speed fibre optic connections: these are thin tubes of flexible glass down which light travels. If you remember your high school physics you might remember the way to split light: a prism.

You can also split a fibre optic signal with a prism: shine in one signal and take two out. Each of the two split beams will be half as strong, but that is not an issue. Effectively you’ve made a perfect copy of the flowing data.

The testimony from the AT&T employee gives details of a room, in the AT&T building in San Francisco, owned and operated only by the NSA. At the AT&T building they had a high speed connection to the rest of the domestic internet. Where that entered the building just such a prism was placed: one signal carried on to AT&T and the other went into the secret NSA room.

It would seem that the way the NSA set up their dragnet surveillance was to install just such secret NSA rooms in internet service companies all over the US and particularly in locations just outside the major web companies they chose to snoop data from.

Tonight Steve Gibson tweeted this link:

Which contains a link to a PDF document from a company called Narus. It’s Wikipedia description is:

Narus is a company, now a wholly owned subsidiary of Boeing, which provides real-time network traffic and analytics software with enterprise class spyware capabilities.[1][2] It was co-founded in Israel in 1997 by Ori Cohen, who had served as Vice President of Business and Technology Development for VDONet, an early media streaming pioneer, and Stas Khirman.[3]

So it was originally Israeli tech and it’s now a part of Boeing. Who moved to Obama’s home town of Chicago (but perhaps thats a coincidence).

The picture at the top of this post is from a brochure of a system that certainly looks like it could do the job of tapping the internet. It’s a picture of a prism splitting information for monitoring.

That’s the best explanation of how the NSA’s PRISM system operates I’ve heard.

And now for the slightly extraneous bit about freedoms and the unintended consequences of science and technology.

I’m reading a stunning book: In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin. This book centres on the experiences of the US’s Ambassador to Germany in 1933. A Jew, Fritz Harber, came to see the ambassador. At one time he’d been a hero of Germany having invented the industrial process behind chlorine gas (and it’s weaponisation in WW1) and extracting nitrogen from the atmosphere (vital for fertiliser and gunpowder). As a Jew, in 1933, he had been thrown out of his university and was desperately seeking help.

No matter what he’d done for Germany he was now an enemy of the state. He received no help from the US, managed to flee to England but his health failed him and he died soon after. Perhaps it was a blessing as he never lived to see what the Nazis did with another of his inventions: his insecticide for fumigating grain stores was first called Zyklon A. It was transformed by the Nazis into the infamous Zyklon B.

Tyranny comes creeping. Little baby steps of lost liberty until eventually ….

About Brian of London

Brian of London is not the messiah, he's a very naughty boy. Since making aliyah in 2009, Brian has blogged at Israellycool. Brian's interests include electric cars, world peace and an end to world hunger. Besides blogging here, Brian of London now writes at the Times of Israel. Brian of London also hosted Shire Network News

Facebook Comments

  • Jim from Iowa

    I know I should be following this story more closely, but the Tony awards just got over and I’m keenly focused on how much Wendi Deng is going to take Rupert Murdoch for in their divorce settlement. So what are you saying here, Brian? That Jews really do run the world or that George Orwell was right or that Booz, Allen and Hamilton working under contract to the NSA never should have hired a guy with just a GED? It’s just not too clear to me right now.

  • Norman B.

    The chemist’s name was Fritz Haber and he won a Nobel Prize for his synthetic ammonia process that started the first green revolution. When he reached England, he was approached by Chaim Weizmann, who was starting up the scientific research institute that now bears his name. Weizmann offered Haber the chairmanship of the chemistry department and Haber immediately accepted. However, Haber’s health failed en route and he died in Switzerland.

  • Lena

    Now what? Suggestions??


  • Gerald

    If the security services are not monitoring telephone conversations and internet ‘chatter’ then they damn well should be!
    Does anyone rational really think that terrorists and wannabe terrorists will only plot attacks or use sites that are well known to carry out their recruitment and radicalisation of potential terrorists and supporters?
    Do you really think that all MI5 or the FBI have to do is monitor sites such as “”, to stop future attacks?
    John Philpot Curran said in 1790 “It is the common fate of the indolent to see their rights become a prey to the active. The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance.”
    If the price of stopping future attacks, whether they are 9/11 in USA, buses and tube trains in London, trains in Madrid, or cafes and bars in Israel, is that they have to monitor all forms of communication Then that is a price I am willing to pay.

    • Jim from Iowa

      I’m not sure of your nationality, Gerald, but in America most Republicans would agree and most Democrats would disagree with your perspective on security vs. privacy. We’re still trying to work out what is the best balance for our country 12 years after the 9/11 attacks.

      • Gerald

        Jim to answer your question Welsh and European.

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