April 4, 2013

Early last week, operators noted that there were disruptions on multiple undersea communications cables that terminated in Egypt and nearby destinations, including I-ME-WE, TE-North, EIG, and SEA-ME-WE-3. The sheer number of breaks struck some observers as an odd coincidence, but was chalked up to the chronic problem of dragging ship anchors or tangled bottom-nets snagging the communications links. Then on Wednesday, the Egyptian coastguard caught three divers trying to cut the SEA-ME-WE-4 cable on the seabed a few hundred yards offshore near Alexandria. The incident is a troubling reminder of how vulnerable the global cable infrastructure is, and may be an even more worrisome indicator that terrorists may make the network the focus of disruptive asymmetrical attacks in the future. 

The virtual world’s very real--and vulnerable--infrastructure

Behind the abstract virtual cloud of cyberspace is a very real physical infrastructure with some surprising vulnerabilities. For example, want to throw all of Manhattan into cyberspace chaos? Then disrupt the 75 Broad Street CoLo or NYI’s New York datacenter on John Street. But if you really want to disrupt the Internet globally, then mess with the biggest chokepoints of all -- the undersea fiber-optic cables that move vast volumes of data from continent to continent. This sounds like the stuff of James Bond and deep-diving submarines, but ocean-crossing cables have to pass through shallow water at either end and come ashore somewhere. This “last mile” is where problems like dragged anchors can cause no end of mischief.

Making matters worse, the shore nodes are astonishingly concentrated. For example on the US east coast, virtually all of the trans-Atlantic undersea cables come ashore at three locations between Long Island and southern New Jersey. On the US west coast, the vast bulk of cable traffic is concentrated in two locations, one in Central California and the other in Oregon.

However one of the most concentrated cable landing points on the globe is Egypt, where thanks to the proximity of the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, virtually all of the cables linking Europe to the Middle East and Asia come ashore. In fact, it is hard to imagine anywhere on the planet where more cables are clustered in such close proximity. The amount of bandwidth that crosses Egypt is breathtaking: the SEA-ME-WE-4 cable, which the divers are accused of attempting to cut, has a total capacity of 1.28Tbit/s. Multiply that by the number of other cables shown in Figure 1, and it becomes clear that if one wanted to create a global cyberspace disruption, Egypt would be a convenient place to start.

Is cable sabotage the new terror target?

It is anyone’s guess what the divers were attempting off of Alexandria, but attacks on cables are not without precedent. In 2007, a gang of knucklehead pirates yanked up portions of two cable systems off the coast of Vietnam in the mistaken belief that the fiber-optic lines held valuable copper, which they hoped to resell on the scrap market. And in 2010, terrorists cut a cable near Cagayan de Oro in the Philippines. In the last century, the US and Soviet Union had multiple cable-related tangles, most famously in 1959 when a Soviet trawler, the Novorossilsk, caused twelve breaks in five transatlantic cables off of Newfoundland.

There is no shortage of infrastructure that terrorists might attack, but fiber-optic cables hold a symbolic appeal, being the vehicle that delivers cyberspace to the masses worldwide – and also the conduit for global financial transactions. It is easy to imagine anti-globalization zealots concluding that cutting a cable is just the way to stop decadent Western culture from polluting the minds of locals in places like Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Pakistan. Unfortunately, the cables they might cut also serve countless other nations so any disruption would have a regional if not global impact.

Disrupting cables isn’t rocket science. The image of SCUBA divers sawing away at a cable on the seabed is thriller-worthy stuff, but there are easier ways to do the job. Snagging a cable with an anchor or fishing net will also break a cable as evidenced by the fact that there are 150-odd accidental cable disruptions caused by shipping and fishing gear each year. Ne’er-do-wells who prefer to stay dry also have no shortage of targets to attack, including shore side stations where undersea cables land and terrestrial cable links like those running between the Mediterranean and Red Seas in Egypt.

How real is the risk?

The vast bulk of the globe’s communications are carried on undersea fiber-optic cables, with satellite communications coming in a very distant second. There is considerable redundancy in the system, but if enough capacity is lost, the effect can be dramatic. In early 2008, three cables (including SEA-ME-WE-4) were cut between Egypt and Italy. Despite aggressive rerouting, over fourteen countries ended up losing web connectivity. The Maldives were completely cut off, while over eighty percent of Indian traffic was affected along with slightly lower outages among Gulf states including Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.

As already mentioned, the global undersea cable system experiences several hundred disruptions per year, and the consortia operating the various cable networks maintain specialized cable repair resources at the ready to respond within twenty-four hours of a failure. But even when response is fast, repairing a cable is a complex and time-consuming process. The broken ends must be located, hauled up from the seabed and the broken optical fibers re-spliced in a complex process that involves everything from grappling gear and heavy winches to microscopes and delicate probes. Break enough cables at once and it is anyone’s guess how quickly resources can be deployed to bring things back to normal.

It is also anyone’s guess whether cable cutting will remain merely an occasional headache or become a serious infrastructure threat. That said, we note that the news attention being given to the Egyptian divers can only work to bring the vulnerabilities of the undersea cable network to the attention of individuals inclined to disrupt it. This is certainly not the last time we will read about individuals seeking to cut the communication links that binds cyberspace--and the globe--together.

Paul Saffo is a senior fellow for the Council's Strategic Foresight Initiative and managing director for foresight, Discern Analytics.

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