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Explosions in two of the main national gas pipelines linking Russia to the European Union have prompted Western politicians to ask: what will be the next target?
No one has yet to take responsibility for the attacks on the Nord Stream energy pipelines. But American and European officials were quick to point fingers at the Kremlin amid warnings that the labyrinthine network of undersea cables that feed the global internet could be a tempting target.
So far, few, if any, of these Internet cables that connect every continent in the world and serve as the digital highway for everything from YouTube videos to financial market transactions have ever been sabotaged by foreign intelligence agencies or actors. non-governmental.
But the threat is real. In part, this is due to poor security around these cables and the willingness of authoritarian regimes like Russia to pursue non-military targets and use so-called hybrid warfare tactics.
It has been a target in conflicts for more than a decade, said Keir Giles, an expert on Russian information warfare at Chatham House, a think tank. If there isn’t much attention to securing these vital assets, Western countries have only themselves to blame.
Here’s everything you need to know about the threat to undersea Internet cables.
What is a submarine cable?
Nearly all of the world’s Internet traffic is carried through a global network of more than 400 fiber-optic tubes that, collectively, span 1.3 million kilometres. They are operated almost exclusively by private companies such as Google and Microsoft, as well as France’s Alcatel Submarine Networks and, increasingly, China’s Huawei Marine Networks.
There are dozens of these cables connecting the EU with the US, arguably the world’s most important digital relationship, although similar networks connect Latin America with Asia and Africa with Europe, respectively.
Part of the vulnerability depends on the location of these cables. They span the globe and are often found in extremely remote areas that are easily accessible by submarines or unmanned underwater vehicles. The lack of regulatory oversight of how these networks operate also makes it difficult for companies and governments to protect them. Most of these pipelines are located in international waters.
There are also so-called choke points, or key areas where major submarine cables intersect, which represent some of the highest risk potential targets. For Europe, these include Gibraltar and Malta, where many of the EU’s connections to Asia dock after passing through the Suez Canal in Egypt. For the United States, the coast of New York is the main connection point with Europe. The west coast of the UK is a hub between the United States and the rest of Europe.
What is the threat, and is it real?
Concerns have focused on a foreign government such as Russia, China or North Korea sabotaging these undersea cables, which are mostly unattended and beyond the control of Western governments. Homeland security officials have warned that hostile regimes could also try to tap into these pipes for surveillance purposes, although both US and European authorities have carried out such deep-water tapping.
Risk is not new. For at least a decade, policy makers have been raising red flags that undersea internet cables are an easy target and need more government support to keep them safe. Nearly two years ago, NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg told reporters that submarine cables are vital not only for civil society purposes, such as the functioning of financial markets, but also for several military capabilities. Most Western militaries can quickly fall back on satellite communications backup if these submarine cables are compromised.
So far, concerns about the vulnerability of these seabed cables have yet to be confirmed in reality. Nearly two-thirds of all faults found on these cables, for example, are directly related to shipping, fishing nets disturbing pipes or boat anchors accidentally causing damage, according to data from TeleGeography, which follows the industry. The remaining failures are mostly due to normal wear and tear or environmental reasons such as earthquakes.
There are no confirmed cases of governments cutting cables for geopolitical reasons, although two separate Norwegian submarine networks were damaged in November 2021 and January 2022 respectively due to alleged human activities. Oslo has so far not attributed these shortcomings to any specific group.
What would an attack look like?
British and American military officials have repeatedly warned that Russia has the technical capabilities to take out parts of the world’s undersea Internet infrastructure to cripple some of Western digital networks. These pipelines are often less than 100 meters underwater and would require a submarine or unmanned vehicle to plant explosives at critical points in the network.
Russia has increased capacity to endanger those undersea cables and potentially exploit those undersea cables, Tony Radakin, head of the British military, told an audience in January.
No one denies that Moscow has the capability to attack these targets. But what’s missing is the ability to carry out worldwide attacks on a scale that significantly disrupts Western Internet infrastructure. In recent years, companies have built multiple redundancies into their undersea networks, mainly to ensure that any short-term damage doesn’t materially impact people’s online activity. As internet usage has skyrocketed, so too have these deep-sea pipes that now connect disparate parts of the world through multiple alternative routes.
If the Kremlin attacks, for example, it could tear down part of a regional network linking the Baltic countries with the rest of Europe. But to have a long-term impact on the worldwide undersea cable network, Russia or any other attacker would need to act on a scale that would likely be easily detectable by Western national security agencies. It would also harm the Internet access of its own citizens.
We were no longer in the position we once were where you cut a cable and it all goes down, said Chatham Houses Giles.
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