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.

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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.

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."

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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.

Fishing boats are the most common cause of damage, and up to 25 incidents a day are reported. While larger companies and governments in the Mideast and Africa appeared to rely on backup satellites to avoid communications blackouts, others complained of a lack of a backup connection plan, or redundancy. In the Arab island kingdom of Bahrain, Mahmood Al Yousif wrote on his blog:

The real question is, how is much of the fastest growing economies in the world dependent on a single undersea cable? Didn't anyone think of a redundancy plan which covers just such an eventuality?

Similarly, in India, larger international outsourcing firms experienced virtually no disruption, while many Web users in India, including small outsourcing shops, saw delays increase dramatically, reports The Christian Science Monitor.

The most recent disruption paled in comparison with an outage caused by an earthquake in 2005. In Pakistan, the BBC reports, the disruption was exacerbated by the country's reluctance, because of security concerns, to lay cables through India or Iran.

The Economist reports that cable damage usually has little effect on Internet users, but that the location proved crucial in the recent disruption.

Global Marine Systems, a firm that repairs marine cables, says more than 50 cables were cut or damaged in the Atlantic last year; big oceans are criss-crossed by so many cables that a single break has little impact. What was unusual about the damage in the Suez canal was that it took place at a point where two continents' traffic is borne along only three cables. More are being laid. For the moment, there is only one fair conclusion: the internet is vulnerable, in places, but getting more robust.

This week, Kenyan officials said the event underscored a need for better connectivity, according to news site AllAfrica.com.

Others stressed the continued need for security, reports Egypt's Al-Ahram Weekly.

Ahmed El-Atfi, founder of the Arabic Forum for an Excessive Speed Internet, said the outage should be an "alert" about the need to better protect essential infrastructure. "This shows how easily fundamental networks such as the Internet, mobile phones and electronic banking could be attacked," he said, adding that "when it comes to great technology it is not about building it, it is how to protect it."

While many have focused attention on increased port, pipeline, and other network security measures against possible sabotage, the cable cuts in the Mediterranean threw a spotlight on the economic and strategic costs of losing international Internet communications. The cables, like many communication networks, are privately owned. The operation and maintenance falls in private hands, and the question of how governments might protect these networks appears to have come to the fore, as The Christian Science Monitor noted in a report last summer.

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