The blackout came without warning. In February 2008, a whole swath of North Africa and the Persian Gulf suddenly went offline, or saw internet speeds slow to a painful crawl.
This disruption was eventually traced to damage to three undersea cables off the Egyptian coast. At least one — linking Dubai and Oman — was severed by an abandoned, 5,400 kilogram (6-ton) anchor, the cable’s owner said.
But the cause of the other damage was never explained, with suggestions it could have been the work of saboteurs. That raises the issue of another threat to undersea cables: deliberate human attacks.
In a 2017 paper for the right-wing think tank Policy Exchange, British lawmaker Rishi Sunak wrote that “security remains a challenge” for undersea cables.
“Funneled through exposed choke points (often with minimal protection) and their isolated deep-sea locations entirely public, the arteries upon which the Internet and our modern world depends have been left highly vulnerable,” he said. “The threat of these vulnerabilities being exploited is growing. A successful attack would deal a crippling blow to Britain’s security and prosperity.”
However, with more than 50 cables connected to the UK alone, Clatterbuck was skeptical about how useful a deliberate outage could be in a time of war, pointing to the level of coordination and resources required to cut multiple cables at once.
“If you wanted to sabotage the global internet or cut off a particular place you’d have to do it simultaneously on multiple cables,” he said. “You’d be focusing on the hardest aspect of disrupting a network.”
It would likely be easier to target onshore internet infrastructure with cyber and DDoS attacks, flooding the network and knocking key facilities offline. Though even then, Clatterbuck pointed out, military and other government organizations likely have satellite backups.
Tapping underwater cables is not a new thing. During the Cold War, US submarines transported divers with specially designed equipment that they attached to Soviet cables in the Sea of Okhotsk to intercept all communications.
The secret surveillance lasted almost a decade, until information about the operation, codenamed Ivy belles , was sold to the Soviets by a former National Security Agency communications specialist, Ronald Pelton.
Today, more than 99% of international communications are carried over fiber optic cables, most of them undersea, according to TeleGeography. While tapping undersea phone cables was no easy feat, surveilling modern fiber optic cables is even harder, but not impossible.
According to the researchers with AT&T Labs by carefully targeting parts of internet infrastructure, attackers could knock out parts of a network that they can’t surveil and force people onto cables they already control, potentially without the target even realizing that their communications are being exposed.
The easiest way of doing so is not by tapping the cable, but the point where it connects to land. This what UK and US spy agencies have been accused of doing in the past, allegedly with the cooperation of the private companies operating the cables.
In 2013, the Guardian reported — citing documents provided by National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden — that British spy agency GCHQ had “secretly gained access to the network of cables which carry the world’s phone calls and internet traffic.”
According to documents provided by Snowden, in 2012 GCHQ was handling 600 million “telephone events” every day and had compromised more than 200 fiber optic cables.
The NSA allegedly ran a similar operation called Upstream, which a presentation leaked by Snowden described as being able to access “communications on fiber cables and infrastructure as data flows past.”
GCHQ declined to comment for this article. In a statement, an NSA spokesman said the agency “can neither confirm nor deny mission related activities.”
“What we can say is that NSA conducts its foreign signals intelligence mission in a carefully controlled manner, in strict accordance with US laws and subject to multiple layers of oversight, focusing on important foreign intelligence and national security priorities,” the spokesman added. “In particular, privacy and civil liberties are integral concerns in the planning and execution of NSA’s mission.”
Attaching a probe or surveillance device to a cable somewhere along its length without disrupting the fiber optic traffic or alerting the cable’s owners would be far more difficult.
“You would need specialized equipment with a grapnel that can lower down to the cable and grab it and pull it up without damaging the rest of the cable,” Stronge said. Then the cable would have to be cut and reconnected in a way that doesn’t disrupt the light passing over the fiber optics. You’d also have to hope the operator didn’t notice that something was afoot while this process was underway.
“That’s difficult, it takes a lot of specialized equipment to do that,” he said, not to mention the “pretty good chance of electrocution” in dealing with a copper cable transmitting 10,000 volts.
Countries have been rumored to be attempting to spy on undersea cables. According to multiple reports , never confirmed by the US military, the USS Jimmy Carter submarine possesses advanced underwater cable tapping abilities, including a floodable chamber inside the sub so divers and technicians can have easy access to the cable.
And Washington isn’t the only power believed to be carrying out such activity. In 2015, US intelligence officials said underwater sensors had spotted Russian submarines near key communications cables, along with a spy ship believed to carry small underwater vehicles designed to sever or damage cables.
China is also ramping up the size of its submarine fleet submarine flleet, as part of a wider expansion of its military under President Xi Jinping.
In a 2016 report by the hawkish foreign policy think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, the authors wrote that “is likely that Russian auxiliary vessels, including tele-operated or autonomous undersea craft, are equipped to be able to manipulate objects on the seafloor and may also carry sensitive communications intercept equipment in order to tap undersea cables or otherwise destroy or exploit seafloor infrastructure.”
They added that “this capability could enable collection of sensitive traffic carried on transatlantic cables and/or cyber attacks against secure computer systems, among other things.”
Of course, if you control the cable itself, you don’t need to worry about the difficulties of tapping it.
This was the concern when Chinese telecoms giant Huawei — which has faced intense pressure from Washington and its allies over surveillance fears — began moving into the undersea cable market.
In 2017, Australia blocked a plan for Huawei to install a 4,000 kilometer (2,485 mile) undersea cable linking Sydney with the Solomon Islands. Canberra stepped to provide most of the funding for the Coral Sea Cable System, which will also link Australia to Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea.
In June, Huawei said it would sell its 51% stake in Huawei Marine Systems, its undersea cable arm. Both companies have consistently denied accusations they pose any security threat, but that hasn’t helped assuage the firm’s fiercest critics.
James Stavridis, a retired US Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO, warned in April against “Beijing’s increasing influence in constructing and repairing the undersea cables that move virtually all the information on the internet.”
“There is no way to stop Huawei from building (undersea cables), or to keep private owners from contracting with Chinese firms on modernizing them, based purely on suspicions,” Stavridis said. “Rather, the US must use its cyber- and intelligence-gathering capability to gather hard evidence of back doors and other security risks.”
Clatterbuck, the Seacom CEO, was skeptical about how much use tapping an undersea cable would be, pointing to the huge amounts of data passing through it every second, creating a huge hayfield in which to look for needles.
“If you wanted to spy on people would you put a giant microphone over the US and spy on everyone?”
However, as the Snowden leaks demonstrated, governments are often happy to hoover up as much information as possible, whether they have a clear purpose or not, and artificial intelligence and other advances have made sifting through such datasets faster and faster.
China in particular, is building huge surveillance databases of its citizens, and has been linked to massive hack attacks against foreign companies and government bodies which resulted in terabytes of information being collected.
And if you’re looking for lots and lots of information, there are few better locations than the undersea cables which power the global internet itself.