Shark bite

Letting the cables sleep

(Source: YouTube)

15 December 2017

While the main threat from Russia in the world of ICT has been thought to be electronic interference in elections, chiefly through manipulation of social media, now there appears to be an altogether different threat—to the very pipes of the Internet itself.

A UK military figure, Air Chief Marshall Sir Stuart Peach has said in a speech that Russian warships have been observed loitering in the areas where undersea cables that provide the vital interconnects between continents lie.

“Peach reckons that Russia could be planning to cut these Atlantic interconnects in places that are difficult to repair, thus crippling trade and communications for millions”

These cables, says Air Chief Marshal Peach, are responsible for $10 trillion in trade daily, and provide the vital, low latency lifeline to the online world for hundreds of millions of people.

Citing Russia’s increasing use of asymmetric, and what is being called hybrid warfare techniques, Peach reckons that Russia could be planning to cut these Atlantic interconnects in places that are difficult to repair, thus crippling trade and communications for millions.

The story comes from the Guardian, and stems from a report by a think tank called Policy Exchange. Peach used the material in a speech to the Royal United Services Institute in London.

The report cites US intelligence officials who describe Russian submarines as “aggressively operating” near the Atlantic cables. It also points out that when in 2013 Russia annexed Crimea, one of its preparatory measures was to cut the main cable giving it connectivity to the rest of the world.

Indeed, such cyber measures have been used effectively in the past.

The famous Syrian air raid, carried out by Israel on a suspected nuclear processing plant in the north west of the country in 2007, was characterised by heavy use of electronic means to show the Syrian air defence operators a false picture of the theatre, thus allowing strike aircraft to penetrate deeply into the target area without being intercepted or targeted by anti-aircraft defences.

Similarly, in 2007, Estonian government and public institutions were targeted and disabled in response to the removal of Russian memorials in Tallinn and elsewhere.

Coming up to 2016, and Russian interference in the US election was much more subtle, employing social media and other manipulative means, though the hack of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) is more than likely a Russian operation too.

However, Russian Navy ships may not be an indicator of an intention to simply cut the cables, as tapping them may be a more realistic prospect.

This tactic has form, as per Operation Gold, or Stopwatch, which saw the US and British signals intelligence corps in the early 1950s tap into Soviet telephone lines to listen in. And, in the 1970s, the US tapped undersea cables in the Sea of Ohkotsk, to listen for ICBM secrets.

However, given the level of development of Russian cyber capabilities, it seems a great length to go to, which is hard to disguise, when the same might be achievable through more less obtrusive means.

That said, the US Project Azorian, which plucked a significant proportion of a downed Soviet submarine from Pacific Ocean floor did so with no cover beyond the mad entrepreneurial idea of a billionaire.

Regardless, Peach’s assertions for the disruption that could be caused by a severing of these cables are accurate. In early 2008, cables connecting the middle east, mainly Egypt, to the Internet were severed in the Mediterranean, causing major outages and slowdowns that were felt as far away as India. Similarly, in the far east, the same effects were seen when a cable was cut connecting Singapore to Jakarta.

Air Chief Marshall Peach seemed to be using the potential for Russian disruption of international communication as a rallying call to a new naval arms race, as he cited Russia redevelopment of its navy as the reason it was able to pose a threat in the first place.

However, it is a timely warning of the need to protect critical infrastructure, both from an internal and an external set of threats.

Here at home, as we increasingly rely on renewable energy, there is an increasing need to ensure that such energy sources are protected physically, be they a wind farm in Mayo, or an offshore stand on the west coast.

Indeed, those very undersea cables provide a high degree of connectivity here too, with no less than 16 connecting this island to North America, Britain and the continent.

While the Air Chief Marshall might be angling for a bigger defence budget, we should all take heed of a threat to connectivity and physical infrastructure that underpins not only our new digital economies, but our very ability to keep the lights on.





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