Exactly one century ago in 1917, British Naval Intelligence intercepted a telegram sent from the German Foreign Office to the President of Mexico, Venustiano Carranza. In the missive, Germany proposed an alliance with the burgeoning nation south of the Rio Grande if the United States choose to enter the war. The Germans also offered weapons and munitions to help Mexico regain its lost territories in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, hoping Carranza could be prodded into launching a suicidal offensive against its northern neighbor and draw resources away from the European theater. Known as the Zimmerman telegram, the explosive communiqué would thrust the United States into World War I and forever change the course of human history.
The story of how that telegram ended up in the hands of Sir Reginald Hall, Director of British Naval Intelligence, and eventually on Woodrow Wilson’s desk has enough intrigue to make for a great Hollywood spy thriller. Today, the transmission of messages is far less romantic, but far more advanced as billions, if not trillions, of encrypted communications are transmitted daily and relayed through a central nervous system of servers called Internet Exchange Points (IXPs). There are hundreds of Internet Exchange Points in cities around the world. Yet most of us wouldn’t even know that they exist or that every email, Facebook post, Snapchat or SMS we send from our phone or computer makes a split-second stop in these usually massive buildings before being re-routed to their ultimate destination.
Right in the heart of downtown Miami, less than a hundred yards away from American Airlines Arena stands “The Cube”, a 750,000 square foot concrete box that relays digital information from around the globe. The official name of the massive data center is Network Access Point of the Americas (NOTA) and serves as a pathway for digital traffic from 148 countries.
Had it not been for an unscrupulous Mexican counterfeiter, the United States Congress may have never voted to enter the “war to end all wars”. Happenstance was a crucial component of successful intelligence work up until late in the 20th century when analog forms of communication prevailed. In the digital age, however, luck is no longer an issue. Everyone can be spied on and the only thing left for Congress to vote on is whether or not to make it legal.
A Sea Change
NOTA is unique among Internet access points because it actually rents servers to public and private enterprises, making it an information-sharing hub. Terremark Worldwide, a consulting and real estate development firm founded by Cuban immigrant Manuel D. “Manny” Medina, built the data center in 2001. Medina’s background was not atypical in Miami. Fleeing the Castro regime, he came to Miami with his parents at the age of 13 and, like many children of post-revolution, first-wave Cuban immigrants, he attended and graduated college. Armed with a degree in accounting from Florida Atlantic University, he landed a job at the PriceWaterhouse Latin American division and while employed at the UK-based accounting giant, he developed important relationships with investors throughout Latin America, which would prove invaluable in the future.
By the time Castro hit Miami with a second-wave of Cubans via the Mariel Boatlift, the Magic City was booming and Manny Medina was about to make a killing. He quit PriceWaterhouse and incorporated Terremark in 1980. Soon, he was not only advising investors on real estate deals, but also contracting public infrastructure, telecommunications and technology projects around the world. His priorities shifted in the mid 90’s when the Internet burst on the scene and he decided to build his own data center.
Manny Medina, once again, found himself in the right place at the right time. He had worked his way here, no doubt; but his concrete-pouring savvy wasn’t a major consideration when the NAP of the Americas LLC consortium decided to award him the contract over Lockheed Martin and one other company from Silicon Valley. Telcordia’s previous experience engineering three NAPs and their technological knowhow would be the crucial factor. In a decade’s time, he would sell his stake in Terremark to Verizon Communications and pursue other ventures in cyber security and philanthropy.
Fiber Optic Dreams
In the late 1990’s, money flowed to the telecoms who raced to lay down fiber optic cable all around the South American continent. An oligopoly of companies was positioning itself to take advantage of the burgeoning digital bonanza. The colossal infrastructure project connected all the major points along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, through the Andes and elsewhere crossing land and sea, meeting on a relatively tiny 50-mile stretch of land between Miami and Boca Raton on the southern tip of the Florida peninsula.
This was to be the nadir of the booming telecom-carrier twin industries until it all came crashing down like the twin towers later that summer. The deluge of investment coupled with unbridled ambition and unrealistic expectations led to a string of catastrophic failures. One of the most notorious cases was the WorldCom accounting scandal, which resulted in the very public arrests of its CFO, John Sidgmore and controller, David Meyers, for claiming nearly 4 billion dollars in expenses as capital investment. The company would end up having to write off $50 billion in 2001.
According to Sir William James, the official biographer of Sir Reginald Hall, the Zimmerman telegram was obtained as a result of a convoluted tale that involved counterfeiting, betrayal and influence peddling.
The story goes that a Mexican print shop owner had discovered that one of his employees was counterfeiting money at work. The proprietor hid the printing plates he found and went to consult with a friend, the administrator of the Mexican telegraph office. Returning to work the following day, the employee discovered he had been found out and turned the tables on his boss, accusing him of being the true counterfeiter. The shop owner was promptly arrested and sentenced to death by firing squad. His friend appealed directly to Hall, who interceded successfully on his behalf with the Mexican government. As a token of appreciation, the administrator provided Britain’s Director of Naval Intelligence with a copy of the infamous telegram.Odel GauriWriter & Editor
The NAP of the Americas consortium initially brought together 43 companies, but would soon expand to include many of the carriers who rolled back plans to have their own separate data centers. Today, the NAP is the largest of three data centers in South Florida, but the only one with the distinction of renting space to Uncle Sam. The facility has six floors, only four of which are built out. The second floor contains the heart of the operation, the so-called ‘peering room’, which is fitted with a dozen giant screens monitoring everything from the weather to the FBI’s most wanted list. The third floor is reserved for the U.S. government. Access to this area requires federal clearance and is restricted to U.S. citizens. It is one of the seven relay points for the Diplomatic Telecommunications Service, which supports U.S. diplomatic missions abroad.
Should the next dispatch that spurs the United States to war come from South America or Europe, chances are it will be patched through the NAP of the Americas. It may also be the case even if it comes from the President’s Twitter account.