Undersea cables: Indispensable, insecure


“Indispensable, insecure.” UK think tank Policy Exchange’s fellow Rishi Sunak MP concisely describes in the title of his 48-page report both the importance and the extreme vulnerability of undersea cables.

Former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Adm. James Stavridis (Ret.) writes in the foreword “it is not satellites in the sky, but pipes on the ocean floor that form the backbone or the world’s economy.” Essential to our modern life and digital economy, 97% of global communications and $10 trillion in financial transactions are transmitted daily “not by satellites in the skies, but by cables lying deep beneath the ocean.” Chief of Staff of the French Navy Adm. Christophe Prazuck reported in July the same numbers to the French Senate, adding about only 20 cables actually link Europe and the US…

The severe consequences of a disruption were highlighted in April this year when the repair of the SeaMeWE 4 cable deprived Algeria of 90% of its bandwidth capacity and Internet access, and the report documents other cases with causes ranging from copper theft to earthquake.

Yet these “indispensable infrastructure of our time” are also highly vulnerable to “attack at sea and on land, from both hostile states and terrorists.” Russia notably is depicted as “actively contesting the Atlantic through a resurgent naval doctrine” contemplating asymmetric targets like fiber optic cables more than conventional conflict with NATO. Russian submarines – one of which appearing on the report’s cover – are “aggressively operating” near Atlantic cables the author notices, while recalling the severing of the main cable connecting Crimea to the outside world was one of Moscow’s first moves when it annexed the peninsula. We remember the presence of a Russian oceanic survey vessel’s near cables off the US coasts in 2015 led to diplomatic tension between Moscow and Washington. Yet if Russia’s capacities are considered at length in a dedicated chapter, Adm. Stavridis does note that other countries such as China and Iran are expected to increase their “maritime hybrid activity”.

Interestingly, omitted are the documented Western countries capacities to tap into submarine cables for espionage purposes, even amongst allies… For example, UK newspaper The Guardian unveiled in 2013 a top-secret joint GCHQ-NSA cooperation codenamed Tempora to tap into and store huge volumes of data drawn from fiber-optic cables. Two years later, French magazine weekly L’Obs also published a damning and very detailed report on French capabilities in that specific domain!

The report advocates the next Strategic Defence and Security Review to “specifically address threats to Britain’s security from attacks on our undersea cable infrastructure,” and to establish “Cable Protection Zones around our highest value communications corridors” following Australia’s and New Zealand’s examples. It also suggests the UK develop a new international treaty to protect undersea cables.

The cable landing sites, while “critical national infrastructures,” often have “minimal protection,” and their locations are both isolated and publicly available. As such they are vulnerable to ground attacks, be it from terrorists or military commandos. The report cites a foiled Al-Qaeda plot to destroy a key London internet exchange in 2007 to illustrate the credibility of the threat and recommends the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure to “quickly review and improve security at UK landing sites.”

The report also considers the fact that cables have mainly been installed and owned by private companies. If private operators do undertake surveys to identify potential damages or degradations, this also “has meant undersea cables do not get the attention from governments they deserve.” As such the UK government should “work with private communications companies to install more backup ‘dark cables’ and improve monitoring at sea.”

Written by ADIT – The Bulletin and republished with permission.