Fibre-tapping, which involves bending fibre-optic cables and using hi-tech means to access light they emit to steal data, has reportedly been used by UK and US spy agencies. But experts are divided about whether fibre-tapping is a threat in Africa.
Earlier this year, it was reported in the UK that spy agency, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), had been secretly ‘tapping’ more than 200 fibre-optic cables carrying phone and internet traffic.
The GCHQ then allegedly shared the data with the US National Security Agency (NSA), which has come under fire this year as its mass surveillance programme has been exposed by former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employee Edward Snowden.
And now, fibre-tapping — also referred to as ‘fibre optical intrusion’ — is being brought to the attention of businesses in countries such as South Africa.
Telecommunications equipment firm Alcatel-Lucent is marketing their 1830 Phonatic Service Switch (PSS), a product that has wavelength encryption designed to monitor and prevent fibre-tapping.
Alcatel-Lucent, at its innovation week in South Africa this month, has said that governments, public security and enterprise sectors are potential targets of fibre tapping.
Speaking at the innovation week, the company’s solutions consultant for South East Africa, Tim Nicholas, explained that it was “easy to pick up information from a fibre cable.”
According to engweb.info, despite being considered relatively safe owing to the perceived challenges associated with tapping into an optical cable, fibre is no safer than copper.
The website also explains in detail how fibre-tapping could occur.
“The fibre cable to be tapped is placed into a micro-bend clamping device – the light pulses leaking from the cable are detected by the optical photo detector and sent to an optical-electrical converter. The converter changes the light pulses to electrical information that is placed on an ethernet cable attached to an attacker’s laptop. The laptop, running sniffer software, provides the attacker with a view into the data traveling through the tapped fibre,” the website explains.
Officials at Alcatel-Lucent also said,“ We believe that fibre intrusion is not unknown to the experts in the industry, but is not brought under the spotlight, because the cost and complexity of full protection was traditionally very high.”
The company also explained that it is ‘easy’ to get into the fibre and spy on all the information that is running through the fibre without the operator or customer noticing anything.
But experts in the fibre industry in Africa say that fibre tapping has not, as of yet anyway, become a major threat in Africa.
According Steve Song, a fibre network expert, he is aware of the possibility of fibre tapping in theory but is not aware of any instances of it in countries such as South Africa.
“I am not aware of any actual cases of it happening in South Africa but they may simply have not made news,” Song told ITWeb Africa.
Independent African data, voice and internet protocol (IP) provider Liquid Telecom has told ITWeb Africa that fibre tapping is not practically feasible for small time operators owing to the excess of transmission systems and protocols used on fibre.
The company explained to ITWeb Africa: “There is no simple way to select a specific signal from the tens of thousands of circuits on the fibre. In most cases circuits are set up and torn down dynamically on demand so the opportunity to search for a specific circuit is quite limited.”
“Signals are also routed automatically around network faults such as fibre and equipment failures so it is difficult to predict what a particular fibre is carrying at any given time,” said Liquid Telecom.
“If one wanted to eavesdrop on a specific circuit one would need the equivalent of a full set of the exact terminal equipment used by the network service provider as well as detailed knowledge of the network architecture and circuit allocations.
“Also fibre carries gigabits or terabits of data. To collect all that data you’d need to go to a manhole with a massive server to store and analyse the data,” the company explained.
Nevertheless, regardless of whether or not fibre-tapping is a threat in Africa, companies such as Alcatel-Lucent are forging ahead with selling their safety products on the continent.
“Fibres you think are secure aren’t,” said Tim Nicholas.
– See more at: http://www.itwebafrica.com/network/272-south-africa/231926-is-fibre-tapping-a-threat-in-africa#sthash.dEMNIJ4T.dpuf