The Russians Are Coming?!: Cables and the Internet, Part 3

Editor's Note: This is Part 3 of an three-part series. To read Part 1, click here; for Part 2, click here.


Russia doesn't have the military muscle that many suppose it does.

Not since the days of the Red Scare have so many average American citizens suspected Russians of hiding behind every bush, and lurking beneath every bed. In the immediate wake of the 2016 election, there were outrageous and unsubstantiated claims from Secretary Clinton and her supporters that, "Russia had stolen the election!" To believe the talking heads, the largest country in the world is attempting to conquer the United States by means fair and foul.


A quick read about Russia, particularly their military, is all it takes to see that Putin and company are little more than a "paper tiger." While they are attempting to modernize their armed forces, Russia isn't the Soviet Union of yore. They simply lack the population and industrial base to be a military juggernaut. Even their nuclear forces are outdated and questionable as to their ability to function.


Still, for reasons no one has yet clearly explained, the specter of the "evil Russkie" endures. The most recent iteration comes from the United Kingdom's top military officer, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach (great name for a warrior). In a speech at the Royal United Services Institute last year, Peach warned that Russia could strike a "catastrophic blow to the world economy by cutting or disrupting the internet cables that run under the sea."


Peach isn't alone in his warning. NATO's former top military chief, Admiral James G. Stavridis (Ret.) is also concerned. In an interview with BBC, Stavridis said, "We've allowed this vital infrastructure to grow increasingly vulnerable, and this should worry us all."


Their concern is based on Russian attempts to modernize their navy, and a growth in (and predilection toward) use of their burgeoning cyber forces to engage adversaries, as they struck at Ukraine, prior to invading. NATO has also been tracking unusual amounts of Russian subs snooping around cables in the North Sea and northern Atlantic Ocean.


Danger from Cable Cutters?


Undersea cables are most definitely vital infrastructure, especially for the international financial system. Presently, these cables contain 688,000 miles of fiber optics that carry 99 percent of international communications around the globe.


Each day alone sees more than 15 million financial transactions, totaling $10 trillion, completed via these cables. A disruption of significant size could cause damage to the world economy. Problematically, none of the experts sounding the alarm seem inclined to explain how Russia would avoid the accompanying economic upheaval.


How much damage could the Russians, or anyone else, cause, however, by disrupting the world's network of undersea cables? The answer ... not much. The fact is that there are just too many connections that would have to be severed at one time to cause much damage. To get an idea of just how many cables connect our world, check out this interactive map.


It is the redundancy of the cable network that prevents anyone from cutting off the internet to most countries. For example, assume the Russians cut all the Atlantic-based cables linking the U.S. to Europe. No big deal — messages would simply be rerouted across the Pacific onto land based cables that would connect to Europe. Sure, you may not receive your emails as quickly, or be able to watch a movie on YouTube as smoothly, but things would still operate.


If all the cables to and from the U.S. were cut, we would still be able to function quite smoothly utilizing our land networks that connect the continent; it would only be overseas communication that would be affected.


Certain areas of the world and certain countries that have just a few cables connecting them to the internet would be impacted more easily and, in some instances, completely severed by the loss of a cable or two. Cable disruptors need not be a hostile government or terrorists. All it takes is a little ingenuity and determination for individuals can cause a significant disruption.


Disruptive Incidents


Access to undersea cables where they connect to shore cables is often not secure.

In 2013, three divers were arrested for disrupting Egypt's entire internet service off Alexandria. The government statement said the men were just doing underwater salvage work. (So, why arrest them?) Experts, however, disagreed with the official report, with many believing it a deliberate attempt to sever the country's internet connection. There had been several violent protests in the area in the days before leading many to suspect a link to terrorism.


The lure of easy money can be another reason to go after an undersea cable. This happened in 2007 when Vietnamese pirates dredged up 80 tons of cable, which they planned on selling for scrap. They crippled Vietnam's internet infrastructure for 79 days. During that time, the country's sole access to the internet was via a 10G-per-second cable that linked the country to China, Hong Kong and Singapore.


Perhaps the most ludicrous act of cable disruption occurred in 2011, when Hayastan Shakarian, a 75-year-old Georgian woman scavenging for copper, singlehandedly caused a 12-hour internet outage for 90 percent of the country and 100 percent of neighboring Armenia. Using a simple spade, Shakarian severed the cable that connected the Caucasus to Western Europe. She denied even knowing what the internet was. Instead of a three-year prison term, the government eventually let her off with a stern warning.


Even if one succeeds in cutting an undersea cable, the damage would be repaired relatively quickly. Because cables are considered vital infrastructure, cable-repair ships are constantly operating in the world's oceans laying new cable and mending breaks as they occur. The ships and crews are very good at repairing breaks because they do it all the time.


The Most Insecure �Undersea' Attack Point


Worldwide, there are an estimated 428 known undersea cables — many suspect the existence of hidden "intelligence" cables. On average, there is a cable disruption every couple of days, typically caused by underwater earthquakes, rock slides, anchors and passing ships. Because the cables are monitored constantly for traffic flow, any break is rapidly identified and typically repaired in less than 24-to-48 hours.


If one were intent on attacking an undersea cable, the easiest location to do so would be at a landing point — where cables exit the water and connect into land-based cables. Surprisingly, these locations are, for the most part, largely unprotected. Often the deterrents are nothing more than a chain link fence, a locked door, and maybe an unarmed security guard.


It seems foolish to worry about determined terrorists when high-school vandals out for a night of revelry could easily disrupt undersea cables worth millions of dollars.


One problem posed by undersea cables is that they are typically owned and operated by private companies and extend into international waters. Because of these reasons, undersea cables are rarely under the jurisdiction of any one government. There are presently talks seeking to establish some sort of international organization under the aegis of the United Nations to establish laws governing cable operations and protections.


One little known fact about cable disruption is that few have ever been caused by sea life. Data compiled by the International Cable Protection Committee (ICPC) shows that from 1877 to 1955 just 16 cable faults were caused by the entanglement of whales. Improved techniques for cable placement and the development of materials that resist coiling have put an end to such accidents.


And don't worry about sharks taking down the internet. The ICPC assures us that the 2014 YouTube video of a shark biting a cable had nothing to do with disrupting our international communications. Their experts say it was an electrical power system cable and the shark took one bite and swam away.


But what if the shark was a Putin operative tapping into our cat videos? This could mean war.


Editor's Note: This is Part 3 of a three-part series. To read Part 1, click here; for Part 2, click here.


Would you like more insight into the history of hacking? Check out Calvin's other articles about historical hackery:
About the Author
Calvin Harper

Calvin Harper is a writer, editor, and publisher who has covered a variety of topics across more than two decades in media. Calvin is a former GoCertify associate editor.