As spying gains momentum, several new technologies are emerging to provide enhanced physical protection for the interconnections to ensure they are not a point of vulnerability.

Fiber cables carry most of the world's Internet traffic, beaming emails, Facebook messages, and tweets around the world at high speeds.

It's Easy Tapping Fiber

Networking engineers have warned for years that fiber cables are not secure against tapping. As a lot of cables run under the sea, it is difficult but not impossible to tap them. Other infrastructure is also at risk. They do not have to be tapped undersea - the best place into cables is at any repeater station. Those are junction boxes where cables would be spliced and these splicing elements are the best place to tap into an optical cable.

A.K. Sharma Sr. Vice President, Savitri Telecom ServicesIndustry Speak
Security Concerns with Optical Fiber Network - Thinking Ahead

In India, spread of optical fiber telecom network is taking place at a fast pace. Not only telecom operators but government of India is also pumping huge money to achieve the spread of this network throughout the country even to the remote panchayats and villages.

This spread will help better connectivity but at the same time secured network has to be provided in the area of defense and other vital sectors. Optical fiber networks were touted as one of the most secure infrastructure options. But recent perception is different from this notion. Vulnerability of OFC network has been established by experts. In the last couple of years, it has been suggested that fiber is almost as easy to tap as copper.

National security agencies are working simultaneously to secure OFC networks. Today, there are millions of miles of fiber cable spanning across the globe. There is an unimaginable amount of data being transmitted across these cables daily including sensitive government data, personal, financial, and others. If cable is laid in a public access space, this data may be compromised. Tighter access control to cabling needs to be implemented. More companies need to employ physical layer security systems in conjunction with their existing data layer security systems. Physical layer security systems are more able to detect and deal with intrusions to the cables that do not involve an easily measurable amount of data interruption. Also, it may not be completely advantageous to post optical fiber communication infrastructures on the Internet. This can provide a roadmap and bring attention to optical fiber communications vulnerabilities. Once an intruder has gained access to the cable, the actual tap is believed to be easier to accomplish than once thought. To do a virtually undetected tap, it is almost certain that intruders would only need available commercial items, such as a laptop, optical tap, packet-sniffer software, and an optical/electrical converter.

When a successful tap is made, the packet-sniffer software can filter through the packet headers only. This means that filters can be applied to the data allowing specified IP addresses, MAC addresses, or DNS information to be gathered, and then stored or forwarded to the intruding parties various tools and mechanisms, including other optical connections, links, wireless, another wavelength, or other resources. If an intruder is successful in using an unobtrusive method to retrieve data directly from the optical fiber cable, then the intruder does not need access to the company's network. Thus, there are no worries on how to get around firewalls, most IDS, or IPS.

It is being suggested that if the company is encrypting their transmitted data, this may provide a stumbling block for the intruder. Depending on the encryption methods used, it may still only be a matter of time before the intruder breaks the encryption and has their desired data.

A.K. Sharma
Sr. Vice President, Savitri Telecom Services

One method is to bend the cable and extract enough light to sniff out the data. The cable is run around a cylindrical device, which can be bought online, causing a slight bend in cable. It will emit a certain amount of light, one or two decibels, that goes into the receiver and all that data is stolen. Without interrupting transfer flow, everything that is going on can be read on an optical network.

The loss is so small that anyone who notices it might attribute it to a loose connection somewhere along the line. They would not even register that someone is tapping into their network.

Reading that data is not completely straightforward, since communications are not transmitted in a single wavelength. Many cable operators have wavelength division multiplexers in place to boost capacity, meaning data transmits not just in white light but different colors in the spectrum. Tapping the cable means using a spectrum analyzer to make sense of the data - but that's only a small barrier.

Layering on More Security

The use of fiber optic cable and networking equipment to connect data centers is growing and several new technologies are emerging to provide enhanced physical protection for these interconnections to ensure they are not a point of vulnerability in the overall data security plan.

New technologies are available now to help provide an even higher level of security on data circuits as well as a means to disconnect or re-direct traffic on a compromised link and to copy and store the packets on that link in order to know exactly what data was lost.

These new technologies start with improvements to the alarming fibers that can adjust their sensitivity to the normal level of that conduit. This cuts down dramatically on the false positives. 

The alarming systems are also able to plug into infrastructure management software (IMS) that provide automation and a dashboard that allows remote monitoring of the events and alarms and the overall health of the network. The software can issue incident reports when alarms exceed the configured threshold.

One of the big challenges remaining after detection and alerting have been addressed is disconnecting or redirecting the data onto a backup network to limit the data exfiltration damage caused by the cyber criminal. Fiber-optic circuit switches have been used by several agencies to handle this task.

These switches are inserted between the network packet switch and the fiber-optic backbone cables. In normal operation, the switches pass the data straight through to the backbone network with very low latency.

But in the event of a breach, they are able to redirect this traffic instantly to a backup fiber network. If no backup is configured, the switch can instantly stop the data transfer. Optical taps can also be used on the circuit to passively copy the data to a networking monitoring system. In the event of a data breach, the network manager can go back to this stored data to determine the severity of the breach.

With the addition of several new technologies, security can be dramatically improved while also improving the chances of stopping data before it gets into the hands of data thieves.

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