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Report Warns UK Undersea Fibre Optic Data Links Vulnerable to Attack

Monday, December 4th, 2017 (9:35 am) - Score 2,791
uk fibre optic submarine cable map by telegeography

Breaks in the high capacity fibre optic data cables that link countries around the world together and on the internet, many of which sit on the seabed, are not uncommon. Now a new report has warned that other countries and terrorists could potentially cripple the UK by attacking those.

The threat is by no means new, although today most cable breaks occur due to accidents by deep sea fishing trawlers, ships dragging their anchor over them or marine life deciding to take a nibble (smaller cables have been broken by hungry sharks in the past but modern cables tend to be more resistant). A whole industry exists to repair such cables and it usually takes a few weeks to fix a break, although this does depend upon the type of break, sea depth, weather conditions and various other factors etc.

Now a new paper from the Policy Exchange, which was authored by Conservative MP Rishi Sunak (Richmond), has woken up to what has been obvious for years by warning that when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine, one of its first moves was to cut the main cable connection to the outside world. Similarly in 2007 an Al-Qaeda plot to destroy a key London internet exchange was foiled.

The report claims that US intelligence officials have similarly highlighted how Russian submarines have been seen “aggressively operating” near Atlantic cables as part of their “broader interest in unconventional methods of warfare” (potential threats from Iran and China are also highlighted). In addition, undersea cables come ashore in just a few remote (coastal) locations, which tend to be both public knowledge and softly protected (note: some military cables are not public knowledge).

Rishi Sunak MP said:

“A successful attack on the UK’s undersea cable infrastructure would be an existential threat to our security. Yet the exact locations of these cables are both isolated and publicly available – jugulars of the world economy which are a singularly attractive target for our enemies.

Since the first trans-Atlantic cable was laid in 1858, undersea cables have generally been owned and installed by private companies. Although this is good for taxpayers, it also means that most governments have not given undersea cables enough attention.

As we debate our future defence priorities, protecting the freedom of the seas and all the lanes of communication on and under them is paramount. Britain and our NATO allies must ensure that our maritime capabilities get the investment they need.”

However it’s worth noting that cutting lots of transatlantic fibre optic cables, while a risk, is something that would be very difficult to completely prevent and the same sort of attack could just as easily be used against an aggressor.

The fact that so much international trade is carried over the internet also means that other countries are likely to be harmed by such an activity, which may include the attacking state (i.e. directly or indirectly).

Overall 97% of global communications and $10 trillion (£7.44tr at today’s exchange rate) in daily financial transactions are transmitted by cables resting deep beneath the ocean.

Report Recommendations

1. Strategic Defence And Security Review

A successful large-scale attack upon UK undersea cable infrastructure, whether at sea or on land, is an existential threat to our security. The next Strategic Defence Review should specifically consider the risks to Britain’s security from attacks on its undersea cable infrastructure and ensure steps are being taken to mitigate this risk and that our maritime assets are sufficient to the task.

2. National Risk Assessment and Risk Register

The Cabinet Office runs a regular (every 2 years) National Risk Assessment process to identify risks to the UK. The public face of this is the National Risk Register of Civil Emergencies. The next National Risk Assessment should specifically consider the risk and mitigation strategy for disruption to our cables infrastructure. A cursory glance at Parliamentary records (Hansard) does not reveal any recent discussion of undersea cables at all.

3. Secure Landing Sites

Given the high level of strategic importance attributed to particular UK landing sites by the US State Department and the potentially catastrophic consequences of a security breach, more must be done to enhance security at major UK landing sites. The government should instruct the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure (CPNI) to carry out a full review of how landing sites are protected. Consideration should be given to requiring a level of protection more in line with other critical infrastructure such as national power generating capacity.

4. Establish Cable Protection Zones

Britain should establish Australian-style Cable Protection Zones (CPZs) around its coast in areas with high-value communication corridors. These CPZs ban certain types of anchoring and fishing, require greater disclosure by any vessels inside them, enjoy enhanced Coast Guard monitoring and carry significant penalties for breaches of rules. Working with international partners, Britain should also seek to encourage the establishment of CPZs in the Mediterranean and Suez, in order to safeguard connectivity in strategically important theatres such as the Middle East.

5. Deploy Better Monitoring Equipment on Cables

Most attacks on underwater cables would likely require underwater vehicles. As it is very dark at the depths that cables are laid, these vehicles use high-frequency sonar to help them navigate. Cable laying companies could be “required to place relatively cheap sensors that detect sonar frequencies near key undersea infrastructure and along cable routes. If the sensors were tripped, they could alert nearby coast guard or navy assets.

6. Broaden Geographic Diversity

Whether at key international choke points like the Luzon Strait, or in the concentration of trans-continental cables in a small number of costal landing sites, the lack of geographic diversity in the world’s undersea cable network greatly increases its vulnerability to disruption. Britain should use its influence as a key geographic bridge between the US and Europe to work with the private sector and overseas governments to promote the greater geographic diversity of undersea cables. By increasing the number of landing sites and, where possible, avoiding overreliance on at-sea choke points the resilience of the world’s telecommunications network would be significantly enhanced.

7. Increase the Supply of “Dark Cables”

Using tax incentives and working with private telecommunications companies, the government could also encourage building backup cable systems and redundant systems. This builds resiliency into the whole system from a national perspective, something individual private businesses have no incentive to do alone.

8. Strengthen International Law Protecting Cables

The present piecemeal legal regime is deficient in ensuring the security of cables and such vital infrastructure requires a more comprehensive approach. The UK should push for the adoption of a “new international treaty that protects submarine cables, making international interference with them an international crime, and include provisions for mutual cooperation on enforcement against such crimes.”

9. Increase NATO Naval Exercises and Review Maritime Capabilities

Undersea cables are the very definition of international infrastructure and an international response is needed if they are to be successfully safeguarded against military threats. The UK should press at the NATO level to promote the undertaking of naval exercises and war games to hone potential responses to an attack on undersea cable infrastructure. These exercises would work with the submarine cable industry to test protocols and defence strategies in an international setting. Furthermore, it may be necessary to increase NATO maritime capabilities to protect freedom of the seas and our sea lanes of communication.

Check out Telegeography for a useful map of such cables.

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Mark Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he is also the founder of ISPreview since 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
Leave a Comment
7 Responses
  1. 3G Infinity (now 4G going on 5G)

    As you say most cables and cable landing sites are well known, however a lot of the Russian (and possibly Chinese) submarine activity is to locate cables that are not well known, eg military only use.

  2. Billy

    So teh Russians could theoretically cut the wire that Donald Trump twitters at us with, does anyone have the email address of the Kremlin?

    This is just another ‘OMG the sky is falling’ stories that politicians come up with to garner a bit of publicity, if it wasn’t the Russians it would be the Iranians, the North Koreans or the Chinese.

  3. It’s true, this information is often in the public domain, albeit not widely distributed. I was looking up the landing point for Apollo to add to Wikipedia and it wasn’t too hard to find the advice to fishermen with detailed cable routing from the land to miles offshore. Targeted attacks on shore-side facilities probably wouldn’t be too hard to pull off, but would be more noticeable as such.

    Good luck getting major powers to agree with not tapping something. Just another reason to use strong end-to-end encryption everywhere.

  4. Craig

    Have I ended up on the Daily Mail website?

  5. joe pineapples

    Its the Aquaphibians that have always had me worried. [Stingray] STAND BY FOR ACTION!

  6. tonyp

    Lets keep the satellites working?

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