Why US spies wanted to tap Reach, PCCW-Telstra cable joint venture

A deal between PCCW and Australia's Telstra shows just how pervasive US cyberspying efforts have become

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 July, 2013, 6:00am

In 2001 PCCW and Telstra established a joint venture called Reach, which created a broad and powerful submarine communications network across the Asia-Pacific region.

Through Reach, the companies owned a network stretching more than 364,000 kilometres across the globe, with nearly half of it terminating at major hubs in Hong Kong and Australia. According to its official website, Reach also had significant interests in all other major submarine cable systems.

This partnership grabbed the attention of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Justice, which reportedly compelled PCCW and Telstra to agree to the collection and storage of phone and internet data that had links to the United States.

This agreement allowed the US to tap into a series of cable systems, including a network joining Japan, Hawaii and the west coast of the US and the Southern Cross system that connects Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Hawaii to the US mainland.

Another cable system, Apollo, is made up of two transatlantic submarine cable legs connecting Long Island and New Jersey in the US with Cornwall in England and Brittany in France. This network provides a key link to infrastructure in Europe and the Asia-Pacific region. Other networks include a consortium cable linking Germany to Singapore, Australia and Korea via the Middle East as well as cables linking China and the US.

Reach also owns three active satellite earth stations including Asia's largest commercial one in Hong Kong, located in Stanley.

In the 21-page agreement between Reach and the FBI, revealed on Friday in the Australian media, the terms are prefaced by a number of "recitals", a legal term for background details on why a deed is made.

These details include how US communications systems "are essential to the ability of the US government to fulfil its responsibilities to the public" to preserve its national security".

It also states that Telstra and PCCW officials met FBI and US Justice Department officials and had extensive discussions on the details of the agreement. "Call-associated data", which included subscriber identification, called-party number, calling-party number, start time, end time, and call duration, was to be collected.

It also covered the user's location, any number that the call was diverted to and numbers in conference calls.

Another type to be collected was "transactional data", any information that identified the call, internet addresses, and the time, date, size and duration of the communication.

PCCW insists any agreements under the Reach joint venture do not affect its Hong Kong customers.

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