In November 2017, NATO defense ministers approved plans to increase surveillance on Russian submarines operating in the Atlantic Ocean. Of particular concern were the hundreds of thousands of kilometers of communication cables connecting Europe with its allies in North America.
Espionage is, of course, a prime concern. Using waterproof listening devices, those interested in intercepting sensitive communications could access the data flowing across these cables. Compared to other forms of espionage, it would take more effort to reach these cables, but once the devices were planted, the amount of intelligence could far exceed any gathered through traditional means.
While espionage seems to be the prime concern, sabotage is also a possibility. Submarine sea cables range in diameter from the size of a garden hose to a soda can. Setting aside the high voltages running through them, severing these cables in a time of crisis could cripple vital communications. The most vulnerable spots aren’t the cables buried deep in the seabed, but the points at which subsea cables connect to landing stations.
But how vulnerable are these cables? To put these concerns in context, it’s important to understand a little bit more about these cables and the critical role they play in global communications.
Subsea Cables 101
Since the first cables were laid in the 1850s, subsea cables have been a core part of the communications infrastructure between continents. Though most people who aren’t in the business of connecting continents probably think satellites are the backbone of long-distance communications, they couldn’t be more wrong. Today, as much as 99 percent of cross-continental communications are carried by subsea cables.
Signal quality is one of the primary reasons cables remain the preferred method for intercontinental communications. Satellite signals suffer from longer latency and greater bit loss. Today’s fiber optic cables can carry signals at roughly 99.7 percent the speed of light. The MAREA cable, a joint venture between Facebook, Microsoft, and Telxius, recently set a speed record of 33 milliseconds for a photon of light to travel from the U.S. to Spain or vice versa.
The Pacific Rim is playing catch-up in subsea cabling. Most of the more than 1 million kilometers of cabling that exists today has been laid down between the U.S. and Europe, but as Asian economies take on more of a global significance, the Pacific Ocean has become an area of greater focus. Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft are all making significant investments in subsea cables in the Pacific.
Is the Past Prologue?
So, do the NATO officials and other governments have cause to elevate the threat levels for subsea cables? Perhaps. After all, it’s not as if subsea cables haven’t been the target of espionage, sabotage, and accidental damage in the past.
In a Cold War operation dubbed Ivy Bells, the United States outfitted a special submarine the USS Halibut with stealth capabilities that allowed them to slip past the Soviets. By placing an underwater wiretap, they were able to intercept communications between the Soviet’s Pacific Fleet base and mainland headquarters.
Since then, wiretapping of subsea cables has been standard operating procedure for international intelligence. Both the U.S. and Britain admit to tapping cables as part of the fight against international terrorism. Other countries have also been accused by privacy activists of using the same approach.
Landslides, earthquakes, turbulence, marine life, and other natural disasters also periodically cause damage to subsea cables, but so do humans. In 2013, three Egyptian divers intentionally cut a cable connecting Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. Redundancies kept the lines of communication open, but until the cable was repaired, Internet speeds dropped significantly in Egypt.
Then there are the accidents that happen. Vietnamese fishermen accidentally pulled up 27 miles of fiber cords in 2007, disrupting Internet service for several months. In 2011, a woman sliced through an underground cable while scavenging for copper, accidentally cutting off Internet access for all of Armenia. The country spent five hours offline. As recently as January 2019, the kingdom of Tonga lost all cell phone and Internet connection to the outside world when their subsea cables were accidentally cut and may lead the government-owned Internet service provider, Tonga Communications Corporation, to complete plans for a network redundancy process.
Not Time to Panic
Past examples of sabotage show that it can be done, but there are plenty of reasons why panic might be premature in this regard.
First, there’s the nature of the cables themselves. These cables may be relatively thin, but they’re buried in unmarked trenches along the ocean floor. As mentioned earlier, the greatest danger of sabotage is the point where the cables connect to the landing stations. These stations are unmarked as well as surrounded by tight security. Furthermore, the cables themselves are often encased in armored shielding in shallower waters to prevent tampering.
But, more importantly, there are so many cables connecting every continent on earth (except Antarctica) that when one goes down, communications just get rerouted through other channels. Internet users in most developed economies are unlikely to even notice a disruption. As quickly as the rest of the world is coming online, we may be reaching a day when total failure becomes unlikely even in developing economies.
In a worst-case scenario where enough cables are cut to disrupt traffic, satellites can pick up some of the slack. Also, keep in mind that land traffic would be unaffected. You might not be able to send a cat video to your aunt in Italy, but you could still communicate anywhere else in the U.S. This was the saving grace for Tonga. At the time of the incident the country’s cable director was attending PTC’19 in Honolulu and was able to meet face-to-face with Kacific Broadband Satellites to help restore essential communication services to the kingdom.
While espionage shouldn’t be discounted, it appears to be a common practice for all state governments that have the wherewithal to fund it, which seems to present more of a potential issue than cable sabotage. Chinese cable manufacturer Huawei is currently embroiled in a fight against the international perception that backdoors allegedly built into its cables could open up international communications to hacking by the Chinese government.
At the end of the day, NATO’s concerns, as well as those expressed by other government officials, may be warranted, but the threat of international espionage is not new. The concept of spying is as old as civilization itself. Guarding subsea cables against these threats should be a priority, but it’s just one of many.