back to article Report: Underwater net cables are prime targets for terrorists and Russia

A report by right-leaning think tank Policy Exchange highlights how global undersea cables are poorly protected, and suggests that Britain should lead the way in remedying this. The report, titled Undersea Cables: Indispensable, insecure written by Conservative MP Rishi Sunak, discusses how easily cable-based communications …

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LINX

Back in my Telewest days (ok - 20 years ago - things may have improved). LINX was the bane of our lives - anytime it had a glitch we had nightmare. We set up more diverse routing through some other providers but it always seemed a bit silly that, at the time, 75% of the UKs internet traffic went through one building in the centre of London (biggest nuke target outside of New York, Moscow and Washington DC).

Its good they are starting to think this through. Might be time to buy a few shares in a deep sea cabling company. Knowing the government they will probably contract BT to build and run a matrix network linking all the cable landing sites together, and buying BT shares would be like buying the Daily Mail (my mum made me do that once), unpalatable.

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Re: LINX

Linx has been geographically distributed in multiple locations for a very long time now. So are all major European exchanges.

It is kind'a interesting to see a guy screaming "Scary Russians" when the Russians have found out EXACTLY what he is saying a couple of years back and have mandated their own infra, peering points, transit links, etc be brought up to relevant resilience to deal with an attack on them. They have a law to do so failing to secure them is a criminal offense for the peering point or transit link operator.

In any case, the weak points are not such buildings in the middle of inhabited areas. The weak points are at sea. All it takes is one trawler with one trawl going around several bays in Cornwall to take out half of Europe Transatlantic capacity. There is nothing to stop it either - the coast guard is down to a handful of ships nowdays courtesy of a series of "defense reviews". They are not looking for anyone trying to deliberately attack it either.

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Re: LINX

It was interesting to hear on the radio this morning that Australia have shipping & fishing exclusion zones around their cables with very heavy fines for intrusion and good policing.

We are rubbish at everything aren't we :-(

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Re: LINX

A lot of undersea cables were listed under the US Critical Foreign Dependencies Initiative. That gives you an idea of the importance of them to the USA*. The list was leaked in 2008 to Wikileaks and it's taken this long for UK politicians to spot this weakness?

*Therefore they should be of equal importance to the UK and not just for the intercept value of the traffic carried.

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Black Helicopters

Re: LINX

@jimbosmith

Hey, nice of the NSA to tell us what their list of targets is!

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Anonymous Coward

Re: LINX

All the NSA and Echelon taps probably provide a layer of protection at the easy to get to bits though!

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Re: LINX

It was interesting to hear on the radio this morning that Australia have shipping & fishing exclusion zones around their cables with very heavy fines for intrusion and good policing.

So does UK. Sans the policing. All UK coast guard has nowdays are rigid hull inflatables - 32 of them for all of the UK which makes 2-3 for the station in Newquay next to the cable landing zones. I think the Cod Wars showed very well what happens if a trawler runs into one of those. I would not comment any further due to UK thoughtcrime laws.

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Re: LINX

IANAL in Maritime Law or anything other variety but I think the various comments about "defending" undersea cables connected to the UK in the postings under this title miss one or two points:

1. The Coastguard has no "fighting" capability, and anything like this would be well outside the role for which it exists. It exists for the safety of shipping and people.

2. Although taking action against anyone thought to be interfering with submarine cables might be permissible within Territorial Waters, outside that limit it would probably count as Piracy unless there were suitable International Treaties or a UN Mandate in place to provide legal cover for any such action.

The UK's ability to defend its interests might be lamentably bad but increasing its capability by a factor of "x" would be pointless without the legal basis for any operation in International Waters. Try making a simple charge of Criminal Damage stick outside the limits of UK Jurisdiction and see how far you get.

Even on land I doubt if any charge beyond Criminal Damage would be applicable if all that happened was the cutting of a cable.

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Re: LINX

1. The Coastguard has no "fighting" capability, and anything like this would be well outside the role for which it exists. It exists for the safety of shipping and people.

Correct, however, I think many people here are using the term "Coast Guard" to describe a function rather than a specific organisation and the RN Fishery Protection Squadron most certainly is armed and can draft in any other ship in the fleet if need be (see: Cod Wars).

As for the rest, the entire point of a blue water navy is to shoot at people in international waters and this is covered by UN provisions regarding national self-defence. One of the principle reasons for categorising something as critical national infrastructure is to allow an assault on it to be classified as an act of war rather than conventional criminal activity.

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Re: LINX

First prove that there actually is an assault on national infrastructure. Or do you mean shoot first and ask questions later?

Arguing that a cable in mid Atlantic or elsewhere on the high seas is "national" infrastucture might also be difficult.

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Re: LINX

We are rubbish at everything aren't we :-(

Not so! We are pretty good at cricket - just look at the current...

Oh.

As you were..

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Re: LINX

1. The Coastguard has no "fighting" capability

Indeed. Unlike the US where the Coastguard is considered one of their military services and is probably better armed than the RN..

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Re: LINX

First prove that there actually is an assault on national infrastructure. Or do you mean shoot first and ask questions later?

Arguing that a cable in mid Atlantic or elsewhere on the high seas is "national" infrastucture might also be difficult.

Not really. Under Article 101 of UNCLOS[1] interference with an undersea cable by a non-state actor can be regarded as piracy and dealt with in exactly the same way as Somali pirates. If it is a state actor then it is state-sponsored piracy which, without an authorizing resolution by the UN Security Council, constitutes an act of war. Either way, there's no legal problem with using force to protect the asset and apprehend the perpetrators.

[1] Piracy consists of ... (a) any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship or a private aircraft, and directed — (ii) against a ship, aircraft, persons or property in a place outside the jurisdiction of any State

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Two sides to the coin

Internet cables are needed both to enable international communication and trade and ALSO for the bad people to push their propaganda to the west. Without the internet, many terrorist organisations could not operate.

So it is debatable whether sub-sea cables would be a terrorist target - they'd be cutting off their own supporters as well as hurting us.

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Re: Two sides to the coin

So it is debatable whether sub-sea cables would be a terrorist target -

I doubt that it is even debatable - terrorists have always preferred to attack high profile soft, fleshy targets, rather than either commerce or infrastructure. There's more than enough people *cough* who could quickly conjure up a strategy to systematically attack Western water, power, gas, telecoms infrastructure in attacks which would be very effective, cheap and risk free for the attackers. But that isn't what terrorists want. Even the IRA only played around with infrastructure attacks a couple of times, weren't very successful, and went back to their traditional low-rent methods of blowing up policemen and prison officers.

Clobbering my electricity for a day merely means I have to enjoy fresh air and daylight, and eat salad (obviously that last bit is a worst case). Chopping an undersea cable means people will have to rely on more local grumble servers. And many of these infrastructure system are surprisingly resilient for those who don't know them well. In a war scenario I can these would be targets, but invoking "terrorism", nah, that's just lazy headline grabbing by the "think tank" authors who should know better. In this case, it's looking more like a "Don't think hard enough tank".

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Re: Two sides to the coin

I'm not sure I see the reason for an Al Qaeda clone to go after fiber-optic cables.

Looking at that one exchange with the 5 cables in Alexandria that was mentioned, if ISIS took it out and then stormed through the streets of Alexandria with 100-200 gunmen killing Coptic Christians or something, would taking out that exchange substantially help them? I'm going to bet not, as the military/police could probably summon reinforcements by radio, and I don't think taking out that exchange is going to badly effect the ability of citizens in Alexandria to warn eachother to get off the streets and shelter.

Could you do the old "We'll take out the cables and take Wall Street/the LSE/the Frankfurt DAX/Nikkei/Shanghai exchange offline and cost the infidels billions in stock losses!" scenario? Probably not, as those kind of targets are going to have a lot of fault-tolerance in case of a badly placed plane crash/subway derailment/irresponsible guy with the backhoe from hell scenario.

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Re: Two sides to the coin

Terrorists have always preferred to attack high profile soft, fleshy targets, rather than either commerce or infrastructure.

Correct. However, it is not just terrorists we need to worry about. There are also "rogue" states as well as not so "rogue" states which we have declared rogue. 30 years ago they would have had to organize an attack on our soil (for any values of "our") to retalliate if we decided to play hard ball with them. Today - not so much. All it takes is one group of special forces trained to "banana" republic special forces standards to do an equivalent amount of economical damage by attacking telecoms infrastructure.

From that perspective, UK or even the aforementioned building in Alexandria is not such a likely target. Now, all the cables which serve perennial "regional enemies" like Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, or any of the links under the China sea...

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Facepalm

Re: Two sides to the coin

I doubt that it is even debatable - terrorists have always preferred to attack high profile soft, fleshy targets, rather than either commerce or infrastructure.

Yeah, I know what you mean. Hijacking a few airplanes to take down some random buildings would definitely not be a worthwhile terrorist endeavor.

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Re: Two sides to the coin

Hijacking a few airplanes to take down some random buildings would definitely not be a worthwhile terrorist endeavor.

Lots of fleshy targets in the planes and in the buildings - they could have caused much more disruption had they dropped the planes onto, say, 3 Mile Island or into the Hoover Dam, but not so many meatsacks killed at once

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Two sides to the coin

Lots of fleshy targets in the planes and in the buildings - they could have caused much more disruption had they dropped the planes onto, say, 3 Mile Island or into the Hoover Dam,

You are missing a key point here. This is documented with Osama saying that he had no clue what the damage will be, if he had he may have chosen targets differently.

First of all, let's go back to the roots. The 9/11 "idea" was a plan originally by Dudaev as a part of his "freedom campaign" against Russian "soft" targets. It was planned differently - with trainer aircraft packed with explosives. He "bought" (or had them donated) a large number of trainer aircraft from the Baltics and several other NATO countries (*) He intended to use his intimate knowledge of the Russian AA defenses which he flaunted regularly by flying from Chechnia across Russia to the Baltics and back undetected to bring them to targets(**)

The satellite photos of the fleet in question at Hankala are in the public domain. Similarly, photos of what was left of them at Hankala after the first battle for Grozny is also in the public domain. Dudaev never managed to execute on his plan as he could not get enough suicide pilots in time (the fact that any candidates knew that their esteemed leader will be coming back and they will not probably had something to do with it). A number of Saudi mercenaries who fought in that war as well as a number of Chechens went to join Al-Qaeda after that and the rest as they say is history.

A trainer aircraft or even a larger prop aircraft has a very different impact profile. For example when a B25 collided with Empire State during the war, the damage was minimal: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1945_Empire_State_Building_B-25_crash

The change to jets done by the 9/11 attackers was only a month before the attack and only because they could not source enough trainer aircraft. They did not have a clue of how the damage profile changes when a jet full of aviation fuel hits something.

So if they knew what the result would be the might as well have hit Three Mile island. They did not.

(*)I am leaving the question of how can you buy 50+ trainer aircraft while involved in a war without assistance from the country in question as an "exercise to the reader". Similarly, I am leaving as exercise to the reader did Dudaev come up to this idea himself

(**)Supposedly. There is an alternative rumor that it was all show for propaganda purposes and he actually flew to Sofia in Bulgaria first every time and then north.

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Protect or mitigate ?

It is almost impossible to protect a cable several thousand miles long. To destroy it you only need a short vulnerable section - preferably easy to reach; and it won't take long.

Mitigation by means of several cables is probably better, also helps capacity and protect from natural or innocent disasters (eg earthquakes and deep sea trawlers).

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Perfectly true

I would just like to observe that you really only need to protect the cable until the depths where water pressure will offer inherent protection. That means until the continental undersea shelf drops into unmanageable pressures - something like a hundred kilometers from the shore ?

After that, you can use satellite surveillance to ensure that any deep-sea trawler approaching too close to the cable gets intercepted by a warship - not many captains who will take that gamble and any 12.7mm canon will do - not exactly high-tech hardware these days so battleships not required.

The US is still operating a SOSUS net, maybe some strategic agreements would be in order to ensure that the one and only submarine with cable-cutting functionality would not go anywhere too close to be a nuisance. At the condition that the US respects their agreements - not a guarantee these days.

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Re: Perfectly true

"After that, you can use satellite surveillance to ensure that any deep-sea trawler approaching too close to the cable gets intercepted by a warship"

Satellite doesn't work like that. Sure, in Hollywood the satellite guys bring up a hemasphere of the Earth at once, and zoom in to a desired area in real time, but reality is not quite like that. Spy satellites "mow the lawn" so they would only see occasional ships at sea. Plus, warships tend to move relatively slowly. A shop that's outside of radar range (thus dependent on "satellites") wouldn't show up until long after the cable was destroyed.

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Re: Perfectly true

A shop that's outside of radar range...

If Mrs Commswonk gets involved there is no such thing.

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Re: Perfectly true

Quite true, look how abandoned fair-sized "ghost ships" can still disappear for months, until they run aground somewhere.

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Ar**

Another example of a politician opening his gob before really thinking about what he is going to say

"far more suited to the comparatively peripheral role the infrastructure played in the '70s and '80s, than to the indispensable status they now hold in the internet age".

Particularly in the '70s, as far as I am aware the submarine cables of the world were crucial to the majority of international trade and stockmarkets, I'm fairly sure commsat technology was not used for banking and international finance transactions.

How does he think thousands of miles of cable are going to be protected from the Russian bogey men?

Make stiffer fines and send bailiffs to collect,or is he going to armour and electrify them?

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Re: Ar**

Try equipping yourself with some facts before firing in all directions.

The vulnerable stretch will be at depths less than 300 metres. Only the best subs can survive deeper than that, and then they only get to about 750 metres. Therefore the parts of the cables most accessible to hostile forces are on the continental shelves, where naval patrols can operate. Underwater research vehicles can of course go very deep indeed, but are limited by what they can do. Theoretically a Ballard type submersible could plant explosives at extreme depth, but there's the surface ship to consider. When you are taking hostile actions, you want to be fast, cheap, and quiet. That's hard to do when working at extremes.

The best defence will be multiple redundant cables. Now that's what they call a hard sell.

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Re: Ar**

Therefore the parts of the cables most accessible to hostile forces are on the continental shelves

In theory yes, but why attack the most easily defended bit, within a couple of minutes flying time of shore based strike aircraft? And even further out, why use explosives that would attract attention from NATO ships, subs and listening devices?

Any deep water vessel could be modified with a trawl or grapnel, just like the ones used by cable repair ships. And the attackers can then break the cable in the vast emptiness of deepwater, at their leisure, with very low risk of attack. Stick the grapnel on a merchant ship, and they wouldn't even lose a military asset if it was detected immediately and sunk.

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Re: Ar**

If you think you can guide thousands of metres of cable to just the right point on the seabed, you're welcome to try.

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Re: Ar**

Don't need to - you can drag a trawl across the path of a cable, eventually you will cut it

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Re: Ar**

"If you think you can guide thousands of metres of cable to just the right point on the seabed, you're welcome to try."

IIRC the current record, held by Alcatel-Lucent Submarine Networks (now Nokia Submarine Networks) for repairing a cable is at a depth of 10km - and there's not too many places deeper than that.

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Anonymous Coward

Who would be most affected by this? Infrastructure local to the country? Banks, trade and corporations?

I'm sure the son-in law of a billionaire was thinking of the people when he wrote this, maybe Infosys can help with the detail in some way.

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So these are then the same cables the NSA has been tapping for 10+ years.

Is there some kind of 2nd come bonus?

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Well, the English should know all about cutting the enemy's submarine cables - they did it using divers operating from x-craft miniature submarines when fighting the Japanese around Singapore during the second world war.

The major problem I see with cutting cables as a strategy is that, depending on how your war goes, you might be needing that same cable for your own communications infrastructure in the not too distant future - kind of like taking out a major bridge and then finding your supply lines have a huge gap in them a couple of weeks later when you've pushed the enemy back a 100km or so..

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Well, the English should know all about cutting the enemy's submarine cables - they did it using divers operating from x-craft miniature submarines when fighting the Japanese around Singapore during the second world war.

Evidently it didn't help us much.

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The operations against Japanese cables were very successful, it turns out. They occurred during the later stages of the war, and not the fall of Singapore.

And here's the critical bit: they were inshore operations operating with extreme stealth, and couldn't just rely on dragging a grapple to cut the cables.

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Facepalm

Sounds like a request for more money and power

Cables have been cut many times. Once it was a deliberate hostile act - the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The rest were accidents and most, if not all, were unpreventable by a government. As for tapping, my assumption is that all cables are tapped by multiple intelligence agencies from all the big powers.

So why bring this up with notes of doom and gloom? Somebody or somebodies are looking for more money, more power, and political propaganda. And they will get it, as usual.

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Easy answer

Trained patrol sharks. Yes, of course they'll have frikkin' lasers.

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Re: Easy answer

Wouldn't they just counter with trained attack dolphins? And lasers don't operate well underwater.

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Anonymous Coward

meh

It's just about impossible to prevent the cables being severed by accident - or what we are told are accidents. It seems to have sharpened a little too often a little too recently in the Med.

Perhaps we'll come up with a practical long distance wireless like solution eventually.

I was just reading an article from the early 50s that was proposing a net of circling high-altitude aircraft to relay TV signals around the world. Less than a decade later the first communication satellites were in place.

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Re: meh

The problem is physics. You simply cannot transmit as much over open air than you can through the confines of a cable.

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Re: meh

"You simply cannot transmit as much over open air than you can through the confines of a cable."

True. But there have been great strides lately in the amount of that data you can transmit wirelessly - unless on the research side.

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Re: meh

Not that great, though. I recall the physical limits of an underwater fiber optic bundle beat the physical limit of wireless transmission by several orders of magnitude, and as much as wireless efficiency is improving, so is fiber-optic efficiency.

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So we are in agreement.

The only question is if the think tank is trying this pet cause on for size, of if they have a specific beneficiary of government money in mind.

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Forget people - worry about Mother Nature

When i get involved in planning this sort of thing, it is the mud slide due to something like a mid Atlantic earthquake that is the greatest concern.

Correlated failures which generate excessive offered load on the rest of the infrastructure - a lot more disruptive, but not terror?

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old news

I seem to recall big bad Russia asking the telco where I worked in the early 1990's for some cross country infrastructure. My company proposed, and then probably installed (I was not involved so have no idea), a chain of submarine cables strung across the north of their massive landmass. It was smirked locally at the time that the cable would be much easier for us to 'record for continuous improvement of the service' ELINT type stuff, rather than if someone else sold them a network of MLOS towers from Königsberg to Vladik. Apparently, allegedly, probably was just a joke?

more worryingly, I was recently wandering around a quaint fishing village in a big euro nation, saw a nice small obviously telco building down a side street. it had a large proud sign on the outside, something like

"THIS IS THE INTER EU TERMINATION POINT FOR UNDERSEA CABLES FROM X, Y & Z, a VERY IMPORTANT BUILDING"

sigh, OK, keep the sign for bigs, but stick it on a nearby decoy small garden shed that doesnt contain the termination systems and their redundant equipment. paint the actual target to look like something other than a very important small building, perhaps pretend it is a small garden shed.

resilience?

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Re: old news

They wouldn't be that stupid. They'd either figure it out anyway or (here's the rub) just blast everything to be sure. Making them search can increase potential for collateral damage and innocent casualties.

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Re: old news

If you want to protect cables - ban idiots from owning JCBs !

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Re: old news

It's too late to protect anything, as farmers need both diesel fuel and ammonium nitrate fertilizer to do any serious farmer. Those two alone can produce serious havoc, as Oklahoma City demonstrated. So unless you ban farmers (and then what do you do for food on the table), you have a serious dilemma.

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"Britain should "encourage the establishment" of such zones in the Suez and the Mediterranean"

Well, as a member of the EU it should be relatively easy for us to reach a consensus with the countries bordering the Med to...oh wait.

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