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Terrorism & Security

New focus on undersea Internet cable security after cuts

Recent damage caused some to question the need to better protect undersea communication cables from attack.

By Peter Smith / February 12, 2008

Workers this week repaired recent cuts in undersea communications cables off the Egyptian coast that led to Internet outages throughout the Mideast and South Asia late last month. But the close timing of the cuts has fueled concern about possible terrorist attacks aimed at the physical, not cyber, links to the Internet.

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Monday, telecommunications officials said repairs had been made to two of the cut Internet cables, reports the Associated Press. Although a definitive cause for five damaged cables has yet to emerge, reports indicate that an abandoned anchor damaged two cables and a power outage was responsible for the others, reports Agence France-Presse.

Lack of clarity and the area of the events, at the crux of two continents, fueled speculation about a deliberate cutting. India's Economic Times reports that the recent loss of service exposed the inherent vulnerability of the network, saying that "It provided a grim prospect of the net being hostage to terrorist attacks."

Hundreds of cables crisscross the globe, as a map in the Guardian of London shows. A map of the Mediterranean shows the location of the recently damaged cables.

Cutting communication cables – or conducting surveillance on them – has long been a tactic of war. Germany's telegraph cables were severed by the US in both world wars, and the Allies severed Japan's cables throughout the Pacific in World War II.

Initially, the lack of reliable news led to a variety of theories. Some speculated that a United States submarine severed the cables in order to cut off Internet service to Iran. Others thought a recent earthquake could have disrupted the cables.

While the number of instances of damage in a short period appeared to raise multiple concerns about security across the globe, one telecommunications consultant dismissed the recent threats of rogue attacks, reports Wired magazine's blog Threat Level.

"I'm much more worried about terrorists blowing up people than cables," [TeleGeography Research's Stephan] Beckert said. "If you cut a cable, all you are doing is inconveniencing a lot of people….
"Cable cuts happen on average once every three days," Beckert said.

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