New global internet reliability concerns emerge

Undersea internet-carrying cables are susceptible to a cut and are an accident waiting to happen.

Undersea internet-carrying cables are an accident waiting to happen
Bigwavephoto (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Undersea, internet-carrying cables are not protected well enough and there isn’t an alternative in place should they fail.

That's according to a new report from U.K.-based Policy Exchange, which outlines potential catastrophic effects that a simple cut in the hosepipe-sized underwater infrastructure could create.

Tsunamis, a vessel dragging an anchor, or even saw-wielding Russians could bring down the global financial system or cripple a solo nation’s internet access, Policy Exchange says in its new study (pdf).

Anchor dragging apparently is not unusual and has happened a few times over the years — most recently, an incident in Somalia earlier this year caused a three-week internet outage in the country.

Other notable cable severs have been from an earthquake in the Luzon Straight in 2006, which caused massive internet disruption and impeded communications throughout Asia.

Also, copper theft suspended Vietnam’s national internet connection in 2007.

Potential risk for internet cable sabotage

Study author Rishi Sunak doesn’t list any historic examples of terrorism or foreign-power driven sabotage, but he says there are numerous examples of potential risk. The locations of most undersea cables is available publicly, for one thing. Also, chokepoints exist where large numbers of cables funnel, meaning a bad actor could perpetrate a mass of lacerations. Additionally, cables have limited protection in international law — they’re owned and operated by companies, not governments.

Sunak says an underwater vehicle, such as a submarine, would be needed for a saboteur to perform any dastardly deeds. But once a foreign power’s representative got down there, the task of snipping the cable is apparently relatively simple: The fiber, which lies on the ocean bed, is typically covered just with simple galvanized steel wire armoring and then a plastic coating — which can be easily slashed.

Maritime laws haven't kept up with technology

One major issue is that the internet has become more important in recent years, yet the maritime laws haven’t kept up.

“Current international law is more suited to the peripheral role cables played in the 70s and 80s rather than to the indispensable status they hold today,” Sunak says, referring to a lack of global protection treaty, among other legal problems. There’s a lack of jurisdiction, too, he says. That negatively affects whether suspicious vessels can be boarded and searched by warships, as an example.

The problem is that cables currently are the only medium suitable for sending large amounts of data and bandwidth across oceans.

“When most people talk or think about the internet or the ‘cloud,’ they imagine that data is being transferred effortlessly through the skies or satellites,” Sumak says. That’s not the case.

The reality is that 97 percent of worldwide communications is transmitted by the barely protected half-million miles of fiber cables lying on ocean beds.

“Satellites account for just three percent of global data transmissions,” he says. “It is not satellites in the sky, but pipes on the ocean floor that form the backbone of the world’s economy.”

They carry $10 trillion financial transfers per day, claims Sunak.

And “when communications networks go down, the financial services sector does not grind to a halt; it snaps to a halt,” Sunak quotes Federal Reserve chief of staff Steve Malphrus as saying.

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