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Cables and Geopolitics

Subsea cable installation and repair maintains the flow of information in an increasingly interconnected world. However, reliance on this communication system has introduced a global security element to this underwater network.

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Sometimes reality is even better than the movies. According to The New York Times, the Pentagon is convinced Russia submarines are sitting on top of undersea internet and phone cables ready to slice them in two and digitally cut North America off from the rest of the world.

According to the leaked report, “The ultimate Russian hack on the United States could involve severing the fibre-optic cables at some of their hardest-to-access locations to halt the instant communications on which the West’s governments, economies, and citizens have grown dependent.”

US military and intelligence officials have recorded increased Russian activity along undersea cables in the North Sea, northeast Asia and by American shores. One diplomat told the paper, “The level of activity is comparable to what we saw in the Cold War.” Now who isn’t picturing Sean Connery with a red lit glow saying, “It reminds me of the heady days of Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin when the world trembled at the sound of our rockets. Now they will tremble again – at the sound of our silence. The order is – engage the silent drive.”

But just like the good people who exist in the deepest darkest rooms in Arlington County who also spend time considering how to hypnotise goats, are the ones fretting about underwater terrorism a little too caught up in this scenario?

According to the director of research at TeleGeography in Washington, yes. “Cutting one or two is not a big deal, really, “says Alan Mauldin “Bear in mind a lot of content is hosted in the US in massive data centres so even if all the trans-Atlantic cables were cut, you’d still be able to use Facebook – though it might be a bit more challenging for our friends in Europe to like the photos of your baby.”

Recently PC considered the network of cables that deliver global wifi and support connections across the globe. The earth has been referred to as a motherboard, because thin optical fibres stretch thousands of miles along the seabed, linking one continent to another. 99% of international data is transmitted by wires at the bottom of the ocean. They’re dropped from special boats with anvils attached to them but are surprisingly weak – the theory being at 8000ft below sea-level not much is going on so you don’t need reinforced wire casings.

Sabotage is common. As we mentioned a few weeks ago, 70% of Egypt’s internet was suddenly cut in 2008 affecting millions of people. In 2013 its Navy caught divers cutting a submarine cable near Alexandria. The FBI recently investigated a number of incidents involving cables in the Bay Area. Cables are vulnerable to anchors, earthquakes and fishing nets. Sharks even like to chew on the cables – perhaps using it like floss. Google invests in shark-proof wrappers.

However in the face of this concern and outrage, it is important to remember that the one concrete instance involving underwater cable sabotage involves the States. As many major lines across into American borders and waters wiretapping is simple. Countries were furious when Edward Snowden’s leaked files revealed the extent to which the US was using the cables to spy. It had such an impact that Brazil’s launched a project to build a submarine communications cable that bypasses the States entirely and also bars US companies from having any involvement in its development. The lady doth protest too much, methinks.