not only GCHQ taps on fiber-optic – review of security breaches in optical fibers technology

June 21, 2013 10:00 pm375 comments

Fiber optics is a method of using strands of glass or plastic to transmit communication signals between two end points. the strands are very thin and in lab there has been produced almost invisible ones. The communication within the cable itself is based on light and more particularly laser beams. various light frequencies that we can refer to as colors are used to carry the data. Each frequencies of light can have fine grained sub frequencies to allow even more communication throughput. Usage of such technique allows us to send and switch data in almost the speed of light itself. The fiber optics technology also allow transporting vast amounts of data in a much shorter time than the traditional copper cables that were and are still used by TELCO companies .

a fiber optic cable consists of a the following basic elements:
1. core – consists of strands of glass or plastic
2. cladding -  traps the light in the core and acts as a reflector, reflacting light back to the core
3. buffer coating - gel or thermoplastic material
4. strength member - protect the cable during installation. made of  Kevlat4
5. jacket - protect against contaminants
5. armor layers – optional layers. army grade uses a number of specialized layers.


While in the past it was thought the the fiber optics technology is more durable to tapping attempts it is common today to consider it as secure (or not secure) as copper.  The data on the optic fiber can be eavesdropped and compromised not only at the end points but also along the line itself. such activity can be done by an attacker that has no access to communication stations along the way. The main security problems that allow compromising these optical fibers include:

1. lack of  access control implementation in the hardware on the edges or using software

2. signal strength change technology is not matured

3. micro-bends in the fiber are not detectable  and allow photons leaks (light particles)

4. external injection of light without physical contact can allows deducing inner traffic based on interaction outcome

5. Oyster Optics is not mature yet and is covering only several security aspects

With this in mind it is obvious that the allegations against the GCHQ’s operation Tempora are of a political nature due to the fact that the rivals and commercial competitors of countries tap each other optic lines. A country that monitors it’s own communication is not something new. it is only a matter of new technology that brings the topic back to the table.




  • Thanks for the great information. I was wondering how do the MI5 and MI6 do this. I always thought it’s impossible to tap on optics

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