How an obscure acro and an old Network World story helped link AT&T to NSA spying

Pro Publica and the New York Times have revealed previously unknown details of the “highly collaborative” relationship between AT&T and the NSA. Helping them connect the dots were an obscure acronym and a 1996 story in New World.

You may have noticed a story over the weekend by Pro Publica and the New York Times that used documents provided by Edward Snowden to reveal previously unknown details of the “highly collaborative” relationship between AT&T and the NSA that enabled the latter’s controversial domestic spying program.

An aspect of the story that received only passing mention was how the reporters who wrote it connected an acronym for an obscure proprietary network configuration – SNRC -- to AT&T and the NSA in part through a 1996 story in the now-defunct print version of Network World. In essence, that acro proved to be a fingerprint confirming the connection … and its match was found thanks to the wonder that is Google Books.

The reporters first encountered SNRC in “an NSA glossary” while trying to identify the agency’s carrier partner in a surveillance program called Fairview. The glossary turned up this passage:

"SAGURA - DNI access from FAIRVIEW’s Partner’s DNI backbone which includes OC-192 and 10GE peering circuits. The Partner has provided a current view of the forecasted and equipped 10GE and OC-192 peering circuits at the eight SNRCs as of March 2009."

Someone on the reporting team somehow had the wherewithal to recognize SNRC not only as an acronym he or she didn’t recognize, but as a potential clue as to the identity of “FAIRVIEW’s Partner.”

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That led to Google Books and this Network World story – AT&T reveals ANCS network underpinnings -- dated March 18 1996 and written by my former colleagues Joanie Wexler and Kevin Fogerty. It’s only in the final two paragraphs, pictured left, that SNRC is mentioned and it’s made clear that this is AT&T-specific jargon. Since the picture is tough to read, here's what it says:

"This time AT&T decided to go with a modular design for the physical layer. To access (AT&T NetWare Connect Service), users connect by InterSpan frame relay or analog dialup links into FDDI networks housed in AT&T central offices. The nets, dubbed Service Node Router Complexes (SNRC), are hooked together by a T-1/T-3 backbone.

"An SNRC comprises an FDDI ring, off which hangs a Cisco Systems, Inc. access router, communications server, NetWare 3.X bindery server and Cisco 7000 or 7500 backbone router for communicating between SNRCs. The idea is that when SNRC capacity gets strained, AT&T can add another routers or server to support more users."

There was more to confirming AT&T’s role as the Fairview partner, including the recollections of former AT&T employees and industry experts.

All in all, the story behind this story is well worth reading, even if you’re not a journalist.

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