Application security, Compliance Management, Network Security, Privacy

Dark tower in lower Manhattan outed as NSA nerve center

Workers in the area and visitors to lower Manhattan have long wondered what was inside the monolithic, windowless tower that sits at 33 Thomas Street, off of Broadway a few blocks north of City Hall.

Amid the normal workflow of street-level businesses, government offices and an increasing array of residential buildings, this 550-foot tall structure is an anomaly with few clues to its purpose. There is no signage or any indication of what might lurk inside and no light emanates from the fortress-like building at night.

The mystery might now be over, thanks to an investigation by The Intercept: Built beginning in 1969 as a telecommunications hub that could withstand a nuclear attack, it now "appears" to serve as a surveillance site for the National Security Agency (NSA), according to authors Ryan Gallagher and Henrik Moltke.

While the so-called “Long Lines Building” is not explicitly documented in materials provided to The Intercept by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, based on interviews with former AT&T workers and examinations of architectural renderings and public records, the researchers conclude that, along with AT&T operations, the structure at 33 Thomas Street has surreptitiously housed an NSA surveillance site, code-named TITANPOINTE.

In other words, the world's largest center for processing long-distance phone calls, operated by the New York Telephone Company, a subsidiary of AT&T, also is "a covert monitoring hub that is used to tap into phone calls, faxes and internet data."

A former AT&T engineer told the authors that the structure houses a major international “gateway switch.” It has been previously reported that AT&T cooperated with the NSA in the agency's surveillance activities, but the article details the extent of the activity going on at this facility.

"The Manhattan skyscraper appears to be a core location used for a controversial NSA surveillance program that has targeted the communications of the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and at least 38 countries, including close U.S. allies such as Germany, Japan, and France," the authors stated.

The secrecy of the facility is well-maintained. NSA employees entering the building are forbidden to wear any badges or insignia that might blow their cover, for example. But inside, according to the report, a vast array of equipment – extending three levels below the surface – monitors international long-distance phone calls, faxes, VoIP, video conferencing and other internet traffic. 

Equipment controlled by the NSA at 33 Thomas Street is housed within a secure room, dubbed the “Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility.” It's here where AT&T routers are tapped into for the collection of intercepted internet data, the report said, before it is relayed to NSA facilities for scrutiny and storage. However, the extent of the surveillance extends beyond the monitoring of international phone and data traffic. The site's roof is equipped with satellite antenna capable of sucking in wireless transmissions, particularly internet data flowing between foreign satellites. This material is then processed through the NSA's XKEYSCORE program, which The Intercept defines as a "mass surveillance system that the NSA's employees use to search through huge quantities of information." This includes emails, chats, Skype calls, passwords,and internet browsing histories.

Henrik Moltke told SC Media on Thursday that he was surprised to uncover these details.

"When I first found out about the building by comparing Google maps to various bits of information from the Snowden archive, it was definitely a bit of a 'No. That's impossible' moment," Moltke said. 

This revelation came as he was researching another big story about the NSA's collaboration with AT&T. 

Another surprise he found was the fact that Mark Klein – a former AT&T technician who exposed the company's cooperation with the NSA – worked at this facility before moving to California. "I couldn't tell him what I knew, but it was similarly surreal," Moltke told SC.

He added that he looked forward to the release this week of Project X, a short documentary he just completed along with Academy Award-winning filmmaker Laura Poitras. Using texts drawn from top-secret documents instructing NSA employees on how to travel undercover on U.S. soil and from reports about TITANPOINTE, the film expands on details revealed in The Intercept investigation.

As to whether surveillance of this magnitude can ever be curtailed, Moltke said: "For myself I can only say that I hope the reporting I have worked on with Ryan, Laura and a bunch of other people contributes to a larger public awareness and discussion." 

AT&T has installed surveillance equipment in at least 59 U.S. sites, according to documents exposed by Snowden.

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