Most of us probably don’t realise this, but much of the infrastructure that makes the seamless working of the Internet possible lies at the bottom of the world’s oceans in the form of vast networks of fibre-optic cables that transmit data between countries. In the modern day, the Internet is our lifeline. Now, consider a scenario, which is nothing less than a nightmare. A terrorist organisation or some nefarious nation-state decides to derail the global Internet by faulting the undersea fibre-optic cables that connect the world. These cables, which run along the ocean floor, carry almost all transoceanic digital communication, allowing you to send a WhatsApp message to a friend in Australia or receive an email from your cousin in Colarado. Despite the significant role that these cables play in global communications, they are largely unguarded because of their location underwater. That vulnerability is in the headlines lately due to the recent warnings that Russia could sabotage the cables and disrupt connections between the US and Europe.
A cyber warfare between nations carries potentially devastating consequences. At a time when more than 95% of everything that moves on the global Internet passes through just 200 undersea fibre-optic cables, potential adversaries such as the US, Russia, China and Iran are focusing on these deep-sea information pipes as rich sources of intelligence, as well as targets in war. The weapons earmarked for the struggle include submarines, underwater drones, robots and specialised ships and divers. The new battlefield is also a gray legal zone: Current Law of the Sea conventions cover some aspects of undersea cables, but not hostile acts.
According to reports, Russian submarine activity around undersea cables that provide the Internet and other communications connections to North America and Europe has raised concerns among NATO officials. They believe that an unprecedented amount of Russian deep-sea activity, especially around undersea Internet lines, constitutes a newfound “vulnerability” for NATO nations. Russian submarine activity has increased to levels unseen since the Cold War, sparking hunts in recent months for the elusive watercraft. US Navy officials have warned for years that it would be devastating if Russia, which has been repeatedly caught snooping near the cables, were to attack them. NATO is now planning to resurrect a Cold War-era command post in part to monitor Russian cable activity in the North Atlantic.
It is almost impossible to think of a world where there is no Internet. The idea of the global Internet going dark because some cables were damaged is frightening. But if Russia or anyone else were to snip a handful of the garden hose-sized lines, then the consequences would likely be less severe than the picture the military paints. The world’s Internet infrastructure is vulnerable, but Russia doesn’t present the greatest threat. Before you get too caught up in a nightmare scenario of the Internet suddenly going dark due to sabotage, reports say the system—despite its lack of defenses—is resilient and would be difficult for an enemy nation or terrorist group to disable. The fibre cables that transmit the world’s data are surprisingly slim. There are plenty more complicated problems that start with understanding how the cable system actually works. One of the estimated 428 undersea cables worldwide is damaged every couple of days. Nearly all faults aren’t intentional. They’re caused by underwater earthquakes, rock slides, anchors and boats. That’s not to say that humans are incapable of purposefully messing with the cables. The optical strands inside the cables have extraordinary capacity to transmit data, millions of phone calls per fibre. The cables that house bundled fibre optics are no thicker than a human wrist. The fibre is encased in a hermetically-sealed tube, which is, in turn, surrounded by layers of high-tensile steel wires, copper and polyethylene. For sections in shallower water, where cables are more likely to encounter ship anchors and other manmade hazards, additional layers of armour are sometimes added, or else cables are buried under the seabed. As a result, cables are damaged worldwide only about 200 times a year.
Since the first submarine telegraphic cable was laid across the Atlantic in 1858, undersea cables have mostly been in private hands left alone by governments and global bodies. In some areas, ocean cables must travel through narrow bodies of water that border several countries like in the Strait of Malacca and the Red Sea. In these tight spots, there’s a greater risk of threats like dropped anchors. They’re also potentially subject to geopolitical disputes since a larger number of countries and companies have an interest in the lines that run through those waters. Several locales also serve as hubs for a large number of cables and thus are sites of consolidated risk. If Egypt’s undersea cables ruptured, for instance, at least one-third of the global Internet could go down. There are calls for undersea sensors for cables: creation of backup or “dark” cables that would not be publicly identified.