Are the Undersea Cables We Depend on Vulnerable to Russian Sabotage?

News & Politics

In the last few days, the possible sabotage of the Nordstream pipelines has been a major issue. It’s unclear who has the most to gain from damaging these pipelines, which has left the question open to everyone’s favorite conspiracy, and a plague of sprained pointing fingers.

It may or may not have been sabotage at all — on The Lawdog Files blog, the author makes a good case that the most plausible explanation is that the pipelines were actually damaged by poor maintenance and poor operation. But even if this wasn’t sabotage, deep water sabotage is a potential problem.

“CDR Salamander” points out in his Substack blog that we depend on the transmission of information–civilian, military, and diplomatic–and transmitting that information depends on undersea cables. Last year, Colin Wall and Pierre Morcos published a study, “Invisible and Vital: Undersea Cables and Transatlantic Security,”  pointing out that submarine cables “carry over 95 percent of international data. In comparison with satellites, subsea cables provide high capacity, cost-effective, and reliable connections that are critical for our daily lives. There are approximately more than 400 active cables worldwide covering 1.3 million kilometers (half a million miles).”

You’re reading this on the Internet, so it may not be a surprise that we increasingly depend on Internet data transmission, but not the degree to which the world depends on submarine cables for, well, everything.

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In the financial sector alone, undersea cables carry some $10 trillion of financial transfers daily. Reliance on submarine cables will continue to increase as demand for data is expected to grow: driven by a shift toward cloud services and the spread of 5G networks, bandwidth demand will almost double every two years in the near future. (Wall and Morcos)

Right now, the biggest threat to this traffic is accidental physical damage, accounting for 150 to 200 faults a year. The owners of the cables are responsible for dealing with accidents, but the possible Nordstream sabotage points out that malicious attacks are certainly possible. The Russians have been modernizing their navy in ways that indicate they are interested in the possibility of attacking undersea cables. In 2017, Defensenews.com reported:

Air Chief Marshal Stuart Peach, the chief of the Defence Staff, said the vulnerability of [submarine] cables to severing by the Russians posed a potentially “catastrophic” economic threat.

“In addition to new ships and submarines, Russia continues to perfect unconventional capabilities and information warfare. Therefore, we must continue to develop our maritime forces with our allies to match Russian fleet modernization.”

These undersea cables can be attacked by simply cutting them (not very elegant, but certainly effective). But there are more subtle ways the undersea cable networks could be exploited. First of all, a submarine or unmanned submersible could tap the cables, gaining access to the data traffic either to intercept communications or by suborning the cable communications, inserting bogus data into the ongoing traffic.

This sounds difficult, but in fact tapping cables has been reported going back to the 1970s.

Hacking the network is another serious issue, made more serious by the way computer security has been less than effectively managed in the West. (Consider the Solar Winds attack, for example.) If a hacker could take control of the network, there’s no end to the number of ways in which the attacker could cause mischief.

It might not even require an intrusion. The Chinese firm Huawei already provides more than 10 percent of undersea cable; the “hackers” could simply be sitting at a terminal in Shanghai at their regular jobs.

Wall and Morcos offer a number of suggestions for how the West could deal with this threat.

First of all, there needs to be a careful examination of possible attacks. In computer security, this is called a “threat model” — an attempt to exhaustively enumerate the possible means of attack on the system. This is part of an overall security policy.

The overall issue is that we have to recognize that the international data transmission system is central to U.S. and Western security.

Cutting the major cables would be a relatively inexpensive attack that could do as much damage as a nuclear weapon.

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