4. Cable cutting
Although satellites are used for some Internet traffic, more than 99 percent of global Web traffic is dependent on deep-sea networks of fiber-optic cables that blanket the ocean floor like a nervous system. These are a major physical target in wars, especially at special choke-points in the system. And this is not simply a theoretical prediction, the underwater battles are well underway.As much as three-fourths of the international communications between the Middle East and Europe have been carried by two undersea cables: SeaMeWe-4 and FLAG Telecom’s FLAG Europe-Asia cable. On January 30, 2008, both of these cables were cut, severely disrupting Internet and telephone traffic from India to Egypt.
It is still not clear how the cables were cut, or by whom. And for that matter, it is not clear how many cables were cut: some news reports suggest that there were at least eight. Initial speculations proposed that the cuts came from a ship anchor, but a video analysis soon revealed there were no ships in that region from 12 hours before until 12 hours after the slice.
Those cables were only the beginning. A few days later, on February 1, 2008, an undersea FLAG Falcon cable in the Persian Gulf was cut 55 miles off the coast of Dubai. On February 3rd, a cable between the United Arab Emirates and Qatar was cut. On February 4th, the Khaleej Times reported that not only these cables, but also two more, a Persian Gulf cable near Iran, and a SeaMeWe4 cable off the coast of Malaysia.
These cuts led to widespread outages of the Internet, especially in Iran. Suspicions that this reflected underwater sabotage derived in no small part from the geographical pattern: almost all the cables were cut in Middle Eastern waters near Muslim nations. Who might have done it? No one knows. But it is known that the U.S. Navy has deployed undersea special operations for decades. In Operation Ivy Bells, for example, Navy divers appear to have swum from submarines to tap an undersea cable in the Kuril Islands.
Whatever the truth behind the incident, we see that if a government or organization wants badly enough to sabotage the telecommunications across a wide swath, it is possible. New deep-sea cables are urgently needed to protect the global economy because businesses worldwide are vulnerable to the targeting of “choke points” in underwater communications.
Whether by terrorists, governments or cyber-pirates, these weak points in the chain should be keeping us all up at night.