The NSA can now access almost all traffic transiting through these fiber-optic cable systems (except those cables connecting the lower U.S. mainland with Alaska) pursuant to a classified program called Upstream. Upstream consists of four subordinate programs called Fairview, Stormbrew, Blarney, and Oakstar. An April 2013 top secret PowerPoint slide leaked by Edward Snowden to the Washington Post indicates that Stormbrew focuses on Internet traffic passing between the United States and Asia, while Blarney appears to cover traffic between the United States and Europe and the Middle East. The precise functions of the Fairview and Oakstar programs are not yet known.
Getting at this traffic is only technically feasible because of the NSA's intimate relationships with the largest American telecommunications companies and Internet service providers. Thanks to a series of secret cooperative agreements with America's three largest telecommunications companies -- AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint -- since 9/11 the NSA has been given access to virtually all foreign Internet traffic carried by these underwater fiber-optic cable systems. These access agreements with the "Big Three" telecommunications companies are legally sanctioned by warrants that are routinely renewed every 90 days by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in Washington, D.C.
AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint can access most Internet traffic transiting the United States via these fiber-optic cables because at some point the traffic passes through one or more gateway nodes, backbone nodes, remote access routers, Internet exchange points, or network access points in the United States that are operated by the "Big Three." At these points, Internet traffic of interest to the agency is intercepted by NSA equipment (euphemistically referred to as "black boxes" by company personnel) that is operated and maintained by specially cleared personnel on the payroll of the telecommunications companies.
For example, all Internet and data traffic from Latin America and the Caribbean arrives in the United States via eight submarine fiber-optic cables whose terminals are located in Florida at Jacksonville, Vero Beach, West Palm Beach, Spanish River Park, Boca Raton, Hollywood, North Miami Beach, and Miami. All Internet traffic from these eight fiber-optic cables is forwarded to the AT&T backbone node facility in Orlando, Florida, where email and data traffic of interest to the NSA is instantly copied and sent via secure buried fiber-optic cable links to NSA headquarters for processing, analysis, and reporting.
And since September 2007, the NSA has been able to expand and enhance its coverage of global Internet communications traffic through a now-infamous program called PRISM, which uses orders issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that permit the NSA to access emails and other communications traffic held by nine American companies: Microsoft, Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, PalTalk, YouTube, Skype, AOL, and Apple.
Thanks to PRISM, for the past six years the NSA has been exploiting a plethora of other communications systems besides emails that also use the Internet as their platform: voice-over-Internet protocol (VoIP) systems like Skype, instant messaging and text messaging systems, social networking sites, and web chat sites and forums, to name but a few. The NSA is also reading emails and text messages carried on 3G and 4G wireless traffic around the world because many of these systems are made by American companies, such as Verizon Wireless.