How vulnerable are the internet's undersea cables?

Cables the size of garden hoses carry the world's Internet traffic undersea. Experts are concerned about how vulnerable these cables are.

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With a recent New York Times article expressing concern from military officials that some undersea internet-carrying cables are susceptible to submarine-attack by Russians, a few questions come to mind:

Should we be worried? Just how much data do these cables carry? And where are they anyway?


"Not many people realize that undersea cables transport nearly 100% of transoceanic data traffic," writes Nicole Starosielski in The Conversation.

She's leery of the theory that they are susceptible to attack, though. It's far more likely that mariners or the fishing industry would cause disruption than terrorists or Russian submarines, she says in her article.

Starosielski has written a book, The Undersea Network, on the cultural and environmental dimensions of transoceanic cable systems.

Cable routes

However, one of the issues that the security services have to deal with, is that the locations of the cables aren't secret.

Indeed, Starosielski's article carries maps of the locations. She's using PriMetrica's TeleGeography's Submarine Cable Maps.

The maps depict active and planned cable systems, along with their landing points.

Interestingly, on TeleGeography's website, you'll see most undersea routes are between Western Europe and North America, rather than between developing and developed countries.

There are almost no cables shown running directly between the African continent and the Americas, for example.

The Poles

The undersea cable routes, originally developed in the 1860s, according to the New York Times article, are predominantly laterally laid around the globe, the map shows—the Poles aren't used.

However, a Redditor using the name Brp commenting on an unrelated article about TeleGeography says latency could be reduced if the Arctic was used, and that cable laying there will become possible as ice melts, presumably due to global warming.

The commenter is referring to ArcticFibre's proposed 15,700-km project between Europe and Asia via Alaska.

"They are also deploying a couple of cables through the arctic now that the ice is melting," the Redditor says.


But it may not just be the worry of a potential adversary, or even a fisherman, cutting the cables and interrupting the Internet; there's also the question of internet-traffic intercepts that the pipes have to deal with.

Government-intercept probes tapped "transatlantic fiber-optic cables where they land on British shores carrying data to Western Europe from telephone exchanges and internet servers in North America," the Guardian wrote in 2013.

What the people think

That reporting has not gone unnoticed by some of the public.

"We need more cables that bypass the U.K. and the U.S. Those two countries cannot be trusted to not spy," comments Redditor ProGamerGov in the same thread as Brp's comment.

"They are already doing this," Brp counters. A "cable direct from Brazil to Europe is being deployed. One of the reasons being that they want to bypass the U.S.," the Redditor says.

The Subsea World News article Brp references about that particular cable doesn't, in fact, mention spying, or any reasons other than that the new cable would "facilitate data traffic."

Garden hoses

One reason for all this interest surfacing is that these cables that carry the world's internet traffic simply lie on the ocean floor. They are thin, too, although strengthened.

"They're about as thick as a garden hose and carry the world's Internet, phone calls and even TV transmissions between continents," Starosielski says of the undersea cables in her article.

"The reality is that the cloud is actually under the ocean," she says.

And while you'd think that satellites carried much of the data, they don't apparently, it's updated submarine cables, first laid in the 1800's, that carry it between the continents.


Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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