International phone and internet traffic flows through the United States largely because of pricing models established more than 100 years ago in the International Telecommunication Union to handle international phone calls. Under those ITU tariffs, smaller and developing countries charge higher fees to accept calls than the U.S.-based carriers do, which can make it cheaper to route phone calls through the United States than directly to a neighboring country.The map below shows global data traffic flows. But it won't last forever: "Exchanges in Hong Kong and London are emerging as local hubs for Asian and European traffic, while new fiber cables running north and south from Japan around to Europe will divert traffic from the trans-America route. Meanwhile, more countries are building their own internal internet exchanges." How long will it be before people are willing to pay a premium to a telecom company willing to guarantee that its traffic doesn't flow through the United States?
....The United States, where the internet was invented, was also home to the first internet backbone. Combine that architectural advantage with the pricing disparity inherited from the phone networks, and the United States quickly became the center of cyberspace as the internet gained international penetration in the 1990s.
....While nobody outside the intelligence community knows the exact volume of international telephone and internet traffic that crosses U.S. borders, experts agree that it bounces off a handful of key telephone switches and perhaps a dozen IXPs in coastal cities near undersea fiber-optic cable landings, particularly Miami, Los Angeles, New York and the San Francisco Bay Area.
....For voice traffic, the NSA could scoop up an astounding amount of telephone calls by simply choosing the right facilities, according to Beckert, though he says NSA officials "make a big deal out of naming them."
"There are about three or four buildings you need to tap," Beckert says. "In L.A. there is 1 Wilshire; in New York, 60 Hudson, and in Miami, the NAP of the Americas."
SWITCHBOARD TO THE WORLD....Via Instapundit, Wired has an interesting piece this week about why it's so productive for the NSA to monitor telephone traffic going through U.S. switches. Short answer: thanks to international tariff agreements (warning: irony alert for conservatives opposed to multinational treaties), it's often cheaper for small countries to route calls through the U.S. than it is to simply send them directly next door: