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The Threat of Telecom Sabotage


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Earlier this week, an article in New York Times captured the world’s imagination with the prospect of secret Russian submarines possessing the ability to sabotage undersea communication cables (with perhaps Marko Ramius at the helm, pictured above).  While it is a bit of a Hollywood scenario, it is still an interesting one to consider, although, as we’ll see, perhaps an unrealistic one, despite the temptation to exaggerate the risk.

Submarine cable cuts occur with regularity and the cable repair industry has considerable experience dealing with these incidents.  However, the vast majority of these failures are the result of accidents occurring in relatively shallow water, and not due to a deliberate actor intending to maximize downtime.  There is enormous capacity and resiliency among the cables crossing the Atlantic (the subject of the New York Times article), so to even make a dent, a saboteur would need to take out numerous cables in short order.

A mass telecom sabotage event involving the severing of many submarine cables (perhaps at multiple hard-to-reach deep-water locations to complicate repairs) would be profoundly disruptive to international communications — Internet or otherwise.  For countries like the U.S. with extensive local hosting, the impact to the typical Internet user’s experience might be negligible;  however, it could severely impact U.S. industries reliant on communication to overseas entities, such as global financial services.  Satellites couldn’t possibly fill in to replace the capacity lost due to the sabotage of one or more major submarine cables.  The Internet would, of course, route around breaks as happened with Hurricane Sandy, but Internet routing cannot create additional capacity where none exists.

Such a scenario would require very elaborate submarine capabilities to locate and break cables deep on the ocean floor.  But after such an historic event, the overall impact would be limited and many breaks would still likely be repaired within a matter of weeks (unless the cable repair ships themselves came under attack).  So would the enormous amount of effort and technological innovation required to pull off such mischief really be worth it?

As long-time readers of this blog will know, submarine cable cuts are a fairly common occurrence.  In fact, this blog regularly details the Internet impacts of these incidents and below we’ll describe some additional cable cuts that have occurred in just the last few weeks — incidents that, to the best of my knowledge, were not caused by sabotage, either by spy submarines or any other means.  What might be less well appreciated however, is that telecom sabotage does also occur with some regularity — something we will discuss below as well.

Impacts from Recent Submarine Cable Outages

SeaMeWe-3 to Perth, Australia

Around 3:00 UTC on 25 September 2015, submarine cable SeaMeWe-3 suffered a fault located about 1,143km from the Tuas cable station in Singapore.  It isn’t the first time this segment of SeaMeWe-3 has been down and its unreliability is the motivating factor for a handful of proposed cable systems to improve resiliency in western Australia, including the Trident Subsea Cable system, the Australia-Singapore Cable (ASC), and the much longer Australia West Express (AWE) cable system, which would directly link Perth to Djibouti over 10,000km away.

Below is a screenshot from Dyn’s Internet Intelligence – Network product illustrating the impact of the cable break on latencies from Singapore to providers in Perth, Australia.  Also visible is the cable’s brief restoration before failing again due to another cable fault.

smw3_sep2015

FLAG-FEA

FLAG-FEA suffered a brief fault on October 5th and is visualized below in a screenshot from Dyn’s Internet Intelligence – Network.

FLAG_cut_Oct2015

IMEWE

IMEWE also suffered a brief cable fault earlier this month impacting latencies into the Middle East.  In addition, the Internet in Pakistan was severely impacted by this incident.  We illustrated the impact to latencies to Beirut, Lebanon in our following tweet.

Other recent submarine cable faults

In addition to the above failures, GBI service in the Gulf was down for several days starting on October 5th.  As happened earlier this year during the last GBI outage, Iraq’s fiber backbone operator ITC stayed online using transit coming through Iraqi Kurdistan.  The GBI outage also appears to have downed service from US-based GTT to Iranian state telecom TIC which had started back in June and was mentioned in our blog post about the K-root in Iran.  Finally, last week, the segment of SeaMeWe-4 serving Algeria and Tunisia suffered a break taking down 80% of Algerie Telecom’s international capacity according to the national operator.  This cable segment was restored on Tuesday. To be clear, there is no evidence that any of the incidents described above were the result of sabotage.  These are the types of incidents that regularly occur in the normal course of operating submarine cables.  Like power failures on dry land, every cable system on earth of any sort eventually fails.

Telecom Sabotage                                

The thing that might not be widely appreciated is the fact that telecommunications lines are also sabotaged with some regularity. Perhaps the most relevant incident to this discussion involved divers (pictured right) who were arrested by the Egyptian Navy in March 2013 for detonating underwater explosives off the coast of Alexandria, Egypt, ostensibly in an attempt to scavenge for scrap metal.  The incident damaged SeaMeWe-4, causing major disruptions to Internet service across the Middle East and South Asia.  But sadly there are numerous other examples of telecom sabotage, motivated by various reasons.  The sabotage of fiber optic lines in California earlier this year is a mystery that the FBI is still investigating. Similar sabotage of fiber lines occurred in Arizona earlier this year.  In the African country of Gabon, saboteurs cut service from that country’s submarine cable in both March and April, apparently over a labor dispute between Gabon Telecom’s workers and their new owners. 181cf65a578ca43285e480eab3bf6e88_300x413

In eastern Libya, the landing station for the Silphium submarine cable was blown up in 2013. Yemen has seen numerous acts of sabotage in recent years, while Colombia suffered a major telecom sabotage incident back in January.  In addition, Bangladesh, Kenya and Nigeria have also had their own incidents of telecom sabotage.


Finally, while government-directed Internet outages have become an all-too-familiar narrative in recent years — from Egypt back in 2011 to Congo-Brazzaville in recent weeks — occasionally anti-government forces cause outages as well, such as in Libya and Thailand.

While sharks biting submarine cables may be a myth, backhoes, hunters and squirrels have been noted threats to telecommunications infrastructure.

Conclusion

Unfortunately, accidental submarine cable cuts, along with acts of telecom sabotage, occur with varying degrees of regularity.  In either case, service is generally restored in hours, days or weeks and life carries on.

It is the centrality of the Internet to modern society that makes it a valuable target for authoritarian governments as well as saboteurs.  But it is the distributed nature of the Internet itself that makes it so survivable.  It would truly take a Hollywood scenario to even temporarily degrade the Internet for a country as richly connected as the United States.  Short of massive solar flares or some other civilization threatening global calamity, the Internet will continue to function as designed and with only sporadic localized failures.


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Doug Madory
Whois: Doug Madory

Doug Madory is a Director of Internet Analysis at Dyn where he works on Internet infrastructure analysis projects. Doug has a special interest in mapping the logical Internet to the physical lines that connect it together, with a focus on submarine cables.