One the heels of the FCC repeal of Net Neutrality comes another internet carfuffle, this time via Russia.
British intelligence recently warned that they have seen an increase in Russian naval activity surrounding international underwater cables. This grid of easily damaged fiber optic cables traverses the globe, providing internet communication to the word.
These cables, which few outside of the military and tech professions have actually heard of until now, are responsible for $10 trillion a day in transactions and 97% of global communication. It’s hard to believe that such importance could be placed on fragile, unseen cables.
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Highlighting the importance of this underwater grid, Admiral James G Stavridis, retired United State Navy admiral and formerly NATO’s head military chief, described the information passed between the underwater cables as “the backbone of the world economy,” reminding that world leaders should be concerned for how vulnerable they have allowed this network to become.
What’s the Precedent?
The fear that Russia might severe the cables isn’t without precedent. After the spring 2014 annexation of Crimea, severing the Crimean Peninsula connection to the rest of the world was one of Russia’s first priorities. How did they do it? By cutting the very same cables. Likewise, during the Cold War, these cables were routinely tapped.
Although the US tampered with the underwater cables during the Cold War in an operation known as IVY BELLS to obtain information pertaining to the Soviet Union’s missile and submarine capabilities, international experts believe that Russia is currently the only country with such an intensive program.
For the notoriously secretive country, these underwater operations have an added bonus. Intelligence and satellite imagery can capture Russian activities on land. It is much more difficult to monitor underwater intelligence operations.
How Are They Damaged?
Because of the fragile nature of the cables, they are often accidentally damaged. A ship’s hull may slice the cables in shallow waters, while dropping an anchor could sever them completely. Usually these kinds of accidents happen in shallow water, which allows for damage to be quickly remedied. However, these cables traverse the world’s oceans, which means if cuts were deliberately made by an intelligence agency, it would be incredibly difficult to locate the damage out in openwaters. Installing cables can cost hundreds of millions of dollars, while repairs are slow and exceedingly difficult to begin with. If a cable is damaged somewhere in the vast ocean, it can’t be expected to be up and running again quickly.
The fears over the underwater cables comes at a time when Russia seems to be increasing it’s naval presence. British intelligence has noted that Russia has increased its submarine presence in the North Atlantic, particularly near important cables and in the ocean between the UK, Greenland, and Iceland, an area known as the GIUK Gap. British intelligence has also highlighted Russia’s notorious willingness to engage in information warfare.
Although high voltages run through the wires, it is possible for a human to clip them. In 2013 three scuba divers in a fishing boat successfully cut a cable that runs nearly 13,000 miles, connecting three continents. Internet speed in Egypt was reduced by 60% until the line was repaired. The intention of the three scuba divers never became clear to the international community, but did serve to draw attention to the vulnerabilities of the underwater grid. Previously, terrorists in the Philippines and Vietnamese pirates have disrupted the fiber optic grid, underscoring the potential for terror attacks to the world’s most vulnerable communications system.
Why Attack the Cables?
Military expert Admiral Stavridis wrote in a recent op-ed, that the underwater cables grant Russia the ability to access enemy intelligence as well as disrupt the economy of a chosen target. This tactic has been used since the Cold War, but with the increasingly globalized market, ever expanding reliance on technology, and the growing importance of information warfare, the effects of tampering with the cables could be far greater than ever seen.
The retired admiral recommends setting up cables that are not actually operational, but could be used in the event of damage to another, insisting that the underwater communication network must be protected in the same way as other networks above sea level are defended, “Our naval forces need to be ready to defend our submarine cables, exactly as we defend our electrical grid, industrial base and transportation networks.”
A New Cold War?
Alarmists warn that Russia could cut off communication between NATO countries, but with the increasingly globalized market, doing so would ensure a new kind of mutually assured destruction. That being said, reports in the past few months have claimed that Russia plans on setting up its own version of the Internet as well as developing its own digital currency. Russian authorities claim that they are not trying to disconnect from the global Internet, but merely trying to protect themselves and fellow BRICS countries from potential “external influence” while protecting national security vis-a-vis hacking. A document detailing the October meeting in which the plan for a new internet was discussed also cited the dominance of the US and the EU in regulating the Internet, as a reason for the development of the parallel program.
In October, it was reported that Russia defied UN sanction to provide new internet connections to North Korea. With Russia providing an internet connection, Pyongyang now has 60% greater bandwidth. Since the oppressive communist regime does not grant its citizen free access to the internet, international analysts have assumed that the greater access is meant to be utilized by North Korean intelligence to initiate more cyber attacks. Some have even speculated that North Korea and Russia could plan on issuing joint attacks.
Is this the beginning of a new Cold War? Admiral Stavridis doesn’t think so, highlighting cooperation between Russia and the US in other arenas like counter-piracy and counter-terrorism, while emphasizing that the US has the most advanced underwater operations in the world. Likewise, US allies like Japan and Australia have far advanced underseas capabilities that could be utilized to prevent an Internet catastrophe.