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article imageAre undersea Internet cables too vulnerable?

By Jeff Campagna     Apr 2, 2013 in Technology
Our dependence on the Internet grows daily. Should we be concerned about the apparent vulnerability of the undersea Internet cables that connect us?
Andrew Blum is a writer for Newsweek, Wired, Popular Science and other high profile publications. He focuses mainly on the topic of architecture. One fateful day, a squirrel chewed on some cables that ran to his house and, as he describes in his book, Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet, "broke his Internet".
In his 2012 TED talk, What is the Internet, really?, he describes his epiphanic moment: "I got this image in my head of what would happen if you yanked the wire from the wall and if you started to follow it. Where would it go? Was the Internet actually a place that you could visit? Could I go there? Who would I meet?"
These are questions that daily Internet users rarely ask themselves. What is the Internet and, more importantly, how secure is it? A recent article in Wired suggests that the 200 undersea fiber-optic telecommunication cables that link the world together are, for the most part, poorly armored, rarely patrolled and only occasionally monitored.
“Other than obscurity and a few feet of sand, [the cables] are just there. The staff at a cable landing station might patrol the path to the beach landing once or twice a day, but otherwise I’ve never heard of or seen any constant security," Blum told Wired.
There are several possible motives luring sea-faring criminals to the ocean floor. Whether they are trying to sabotage a country's communications by severing cables or stealing the valuable copper conductor inside the cables for profit, the fact remains that attempting either would be a precarious endeavour. Attacks on undersea cables are “pretty unusual and pretty dangerous,” Mark Simpson, CEO of SEACOM, a company that owns five undersea fiber-optic lines, told Wired. However, it does happen.
The Washington Post reported last week that Egyptian naval forces captured three scuba-divers in the Mediterranean Sea who were trying to cut an undersea cable belonging to Telecom Egypt, the country’s main communications company. Apparently, Egypt's Internet connection has been intermittent since March 22nd due to damage that was caused by a ship, Telecom Egypt executive manager, Mohammed el-Nawawi, told the CBC.
It's not a new problem either. In 2008, millions of people in the Middle East and Southeast Asia were relegated to Internet darkness when a ship's anchor damaged two telecommunication cables, FLAG Europe Asia and SEA-ME-WE-4, off the coast of Egypt. And in 2006, an earthquake in Taiwan caused damage to multiple cables and cut off communication to Hong Kong, South East Asia and China.
Todd Underwood, a Vice President at Renesys, a company that provides Internet information analysis to the world’s largest telecom companies spoke to Wired about the issue in 2008 stating, "Part of the lesson here is that there will always be outages. This is all about money — how much money do we want to pay to make sure the network doesn’t go down? We are used to thinking of the Internet as being a thing that goes down."
Underwood raises an interesting dilemma. Not only does the Internet cost millions of dollars to maintain but it also generates an immense amount of revenue for online marketplaces like Amazon and eBay — not to mention the increase in sales for companies in every sector since the widespread use of the e-commerce. Should these entities that have so much at stake have to foot more of the bill for undersea cable repair?
But Underwood also highlights a common resignation some Internet users posses regarding service outages. A resignation that, bearing in mind our increasing dependence on the world wide web, should be reconsidered:
"When you take off from LAX, you're really not thinking you're using the Internet," says inventor, scientist, author and engineer, Danny Hillis, who was one of the first users of the Internet back in 1982. "When you pump gas, you really don't think you're using the Internet. Even a modern rocket ship these days uses Internet to talk from one of the rocket to the other... Most of [these technologies] aren't based on the Internet yet, but they're starting to use the Internet for service functions, for administrative functions."
While in the U.S. a cable break may occur only once a year, in other regions of the world, such as off the eastern coast of China, there can be as many as one cable break every week. It's a very real problem with no solutions beyond sailing out to the middle of the ocean where the damaged cable is, sending down a robotic submersible to grab the 1000 fibre-thick cable and drag it up to the surface of the water where technicians or jointers splice in a new, extremely expensive stretch of cable. Relatively crude mending for an invention as elegant as the Internet.
More about Internet, Technology, Oceans, Sabotage, Crime