Next, Russia will attack underwater Internet cables. – POLITICAL

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Due to the explosions in the two major national gas pipelines connecting Russia to the European Union, Western policymakers are asking:

No one has yet claimed responsibility for the attacks on the “North Stream” power lines. But American and European officials have been quick to point out finger at the Kremlin amid warnings that the labyrinthine network of underwater cables that power the global Internet could be an inviting target.

Until now, few, if any, of these Internet cables, which connect all the world’s continents and provide a digital highway for everything from YouTube videos to financial market transactions, have ever been sabotaged by foreign intelligence agencies or non-governmental actors.

But the threat is real. In part, this is due to lax security around these cables and the willingness of authoritarian regimes like Russia to pursue non-military targets and use so-called hybrid warfare tactics.

“It has been a target of conflict for more than a decade,” said Keir Giles, a Russian information warfare expert at the Chatham House think tank. “If greater attention is not paid to securing these vital assets, Western countries have only themselves to blame.”

Here’s everything you need to know about the threat of underwater Internet cables.

What is a submarine cable?

Almost all of the world’s Internet traffic is carried by a global network of more than 400 fiber optic pipes, totaling 1.3 million kilometers. They are almost exclusively operated by private companies such as Google and Microsoft, as well as France’s Alcatel Submarine Networks and, increasingly, China’s Huawei Marine Networks.

There are dozens of cables connecting the EU to the United States, perhaps the world’s most important digital relationship, although similar networks connect Latin America to Asia and Africa to Europe, respectively.

Part of the vulnerability is related to the location of these cables. They are spread across the globe and are often located in extremely remote locations that are easily accessible by submarines or unmanned underwater vehicles. The lack of regulatory oversight over the operation of these networks also makes it difficult for companies and governments to protect them. Most of these pipelines are located in international waters.

There are also so-called choke points, or key areas where major submarine cables intersect, which represent some of the highest risk potential targets. For Europe, these include Gibraltar and Malta, where many of the EU’s connections to Asia arrive overland after passing through Egypt’s Suez Canal. For the US, New York’s coastline is the primary point of contact with Europe. The west coast of the United Kingdom is the hub of communication between the US and the rest of Europe.

What is the threat and is it real?

Concerns center on a foreign government, such as Russia, China or North Korea, sabotaging these undersea cables, which are largely unprotected and outside the control of Western governments. National security officials have warned that rival regimes could also try to tap into the pipelines for surveillance purposes, although both the US and European authorities have conducted such deep-sea wire-tapping operations.

The risk is not new. For at least a decade, policymakers have raised red flags that underwater Internet cables are easy targets and need more government support to keep them safe. Almost two years ago, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. told reporters Undersea cables were vital not only for civil society purposes such as financial markets, but also for “various military capabilities”. Most Western militaries can quickly turn to backup satellite communications if those undersea cables are compromised.

For now, concerns about the vulnerability of these undersea cables have yet to be actually confirmed. Almost two-thirds of all faults found on these cables, for example, are directly related to shipping, or fishing nets obstructing pipes or boat anchors accidentally causing damage. the data From TeleGeography, which tracks the industry. Other faults are mainly due to normal wear and tear or environmental causes such as earthquakes.

There are no confirmed cases of governments cutting cables for geopolitical reasons, although two separate Norwegian submarine networks were damaged in November and January 2021. 2022, respectively, with assumed human activity. Oslo has so far not attributed these shortcomings to any specific group.

What will the attack look like?

British and American military have been warned many times Russia has the technical skills to remove parts of the world’s underwater internet infrastructure to cripple some of the West’s digital networks. These pipelines are often less than 100 meters underwater, and either a submarine or a drone is required to plant explosives at critical points in the network.

“Russia has increased its ability to threaten those submarine cables and potentially exploit those submarine cables,” Britain’s military chief Tony Radakin told an audience in January.

No one denies that Moscow can attack these targets. But what it lacks is the ability to launch global attacks on a scale that significantly disrupts the Internet infrastructure of the West. In recent years, companies have made many cuts to their underwater networks, mostly to ensure that any short-term damage doesn’t significantly affect people’s online activities. As the use of the Internet has grown dramatically, so have these deep-sea pipelines, which now connect different parts of the world through many alternative routes.

If the Kremlin does attack, for example, it could destroy part of the regional network that connects the Baltic states to the rest of Europe. But to have a long-term impact on the global undersea cable network, Russia or any other aggressor would have to operate on a scale that would likely be easily detectable by Western national security agencies. It would also harm its own citizens’ internet access.

“We’re no longer in the position we once were where you cut one cable and everything goes down,” Chatham House’s Giles said.

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