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The great internet scare: the US is worried Russia could cut undersea data cables

Aleesha Matharu | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 6:59 IST

In a return to what is being called 'Cold War level' tension, the New York Times reported on Sunday that Russia could be developing plans to sever key global internet communications - undersea data cables - "that carry almost all global internet communications" during possible "future wars".

The Times report claims that there is "aggressive" movement near vital undersea cables, raising concern among several US military and intelligence officers.

A European diplomat, unnamed by the Times, was even quoted as saying, "The level of activity is comparable to what we saw in the Cold War."

Even if things do not escalate to such a level any time soon, it's good to be reminded that the internet doesn't just happen via satellites.

It's served to us by thousands of miles of physical cabling, and much of it stretches under the sea. And these undersea cables deliver more than 99% of all international communications.

Endless possibilities

There's no evidence that the Russians have cut cables yet, but the intelligence agencies of the US and its allies have observed increased activity by the Russian fleet along cable routes, even close to the US.

While it's possible that that President Vladmir Putin is looking to tap these undersea cables - a game that the US and the UK have been masters at so far - officials told the Times it is more likely that they were looking for hard-to-reach locations to cut cables during future operations.

The US fears that the Russians could sever data cables if and when a war occurs

Such locations would make it difficult and time-consuming to repair cables, maximising the impact of cuts. According to the Times, Russia may also be looking for secret cables that the US installed for military purposes.

But could you imagine if all internet services around the world died even for one day? There would be utter pandemonium. Even when a local operator's tower is down, each one of us feels panicked over being cut off.

Now picture that occurring at a global level.

If these cables were damaged severely, what would the effect be?

In September, the Russian Navy's oceanographic research ship Yantar, carrying unmanned underwater surveillance vehicles, was observed operating near the US Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba - where one major cable lands near the American naval station at Guantanamo Bay - and elsewhere in the Caribbean.

If there's one thing that this incident points to, it's that the internet might be among the first casualties if there's ever a large scale war. After all, it's wise to cut the enemy's lines of communication if such an event does come about - be it over water, nukes or just a stray incident like the death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914.

As you can gather, this would create serious problems for the world as a whole.

Depending on the line, a cut could disrupt internet access (and thus economies) in countries that wouldn't even be involved in the fight. But it's hard to speculate exactly what that damage would entail.

What are the other ways by which a cable can be severed?

According to the International Cable Protection Committee (ICPC), 70% of all cable failures are associated with fishing and shipping activities.

Dredging, drilling, seabed abrasion and earthquakes also play a role.

Natural hazards, including seabed abrasion and shark bites, account for less than 10% of all faults.

Most are quickly repaired without internet users ever being aware of a problem.

One cable failure - between Sicily and Egypt - left more than 50% of India without internet in 2008.

Undersea cables deliver more than 99% of all international communications

In 2008 again, some ships also clumsily dropped their anchors in the Mediterranean and near the Middle East, effectively disrupting the internet in certain zones.

Cables also get stolen occasionally and are the sold as scrap. In 2007, pirates managed to steal over 100 metres of cable that connected Vietnam, Thailand and Hong Kong to the rest of the world.

In August 2014, it was reported that sharks have been attacking undersea data cables around the world. In fact, Google even has footage of the sharks' fondness for gnawing at undersea cables, recorded by a remote underwater vehicle during a survey operation.

Google's solution for the shark problem? Coat the cables with bullet proof Kevlar, of course!

Are these cables protected at all considering their importance?

According to the Times, the fiber-optic cables facilitate $10 trillion in daily global business, and carry more than 95% of global communications.

Google has taken measures against sharks by using Kevlar on its cables. But most undersea cables are only protected by the extra layers of casing that the seabed offers once they are buried under it - usually one metre deep.

The internet Is likely to be among the first casualties if there's ever a large scale war

To bury such cables deeper to stave off submarine attacks such as the ones that the US is envisioning right now would be an expensive proposition according to one expert the BBC spoke to.

The expert, Jeremy Hartley, the owner of subsea cabling consultancy ETA, says that the protection is mostly designed for fishing and anchor accidents as military or terrorist action has always been seen as a "low-level threat".

He suggests that the "physical presence of military personnel or assets at places where cables are vulnerable might be considered as a suitable protection during times of conflict".

Who's been tapping undersea cables so far?

The US managed to develop ways to tap cables in undersea locations as early as the 1970s.

One early example is a US programme in the 1970s called Operation Ivy Bells, which attached a listening device to Soviet communications cables in the Sea of Okhostsk linking facilities in the Kuril Island chain, recording unencrypted communications on tapes that were retrieved by divers monthly. The program ended in 1981 after a National Security Agency employee sold information about the program to the Soviets for $35,000.

Documents leaked by Edward Snowden even allege that intelligence agencies such as the NSA can intercept data communications from various sites around the world where major transatlantic cables come ashore. There is proof of such tampering at Bude in Cornwall in the UK.

US cable tapping programmes are known by names like STORMBREW, OAKSTAR, BLARNEY and FAIRVIEW.

70% of all cable failures are because of shipping activities. Sharks enjoy gnawing at cables too

UK spy agencies have also tapped directly into the internet's backbone. The British surveillance programmes have much creepier names though: "Mastering the Internet" and "Global Telecoms Exploitation," according to The Guardian.

A subsidiary programme for these operations - Tempora - sucks up around 21 million gigabytes per day and stores the data for a month.

The data harvest from Tempora includes phone calls, emails, Facebook entries and histories of internet usage per user. Copies of gigabytes of data can be made and stored till they are needed for another day, at which point GCHQ (UK Government Communications Headquarters) and NSA analysts will pore over the data.

A quick history:

  • The foundation of the global map of undersea cables was laid with the invention of the telegraph in 19th century.
  • The first successful transatlantic cable was laid in 1858.
  • The first ever message sent over it was a congratulatory letter from Queen Victoria to US president James Buchanan on 16 August 1858.
  • All modern cables use fibre-optic technology, which enables them to carry digital payloads - telephone, Internet and private data traffic.
  • Cables are laid by specially-designed ships that can carry up to 2,000 km of coiled cable. Cable ships can cover 100-150 km per day.

First published: 27 October 2015, 9:04 IST
Aleesha Matharu @almatharu

Born in Bihar, raised in Delhi and schooled in Dehradun, Aleesha writes on a range of subjects and worked at The Indian Express before joining Catch as a sub-editor. When not at work you can find her glued to the TV, trying to clear a backlog of shows, or reading her Kindle. Raised on a diet of rock 'n' roll, she's hit occasionally by wanderlust. After an eight-year stint at Welham Girls' School, Delhi University turned out to be an exercise in youthful rebellion before she finally trudged her way to J-school and got the best all-round student award. Now she takes each day as it comes, but isn't an eternal optimist.