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Explosions at two major national gas pipelines connecting Russia to the European Union have Western politicians wondering: what will be the next target?
No one has yet taken responsibility for the attacks on the Nord Stream energy pipelines. But American and European officials they were quick to point out the finger on the Kremlin, amid warnings, the labyrinthine network of undersea cables that power the global Internet could be an attractive target.
Until now, few, if any, of these Internet cables, which connect all the world’s continents and represent the digital highway for everything from YouTube videos to financial market transactions, have been sabotaged by foreign intelligence agencies or non-governmental actors.
But the threat is real. In part, that’s due to weak security around these cables and the willingness of authoritarian regimes like Russia to pursue non-military goals and use so-called hybrid warfare tactics.
“It has been a target in conflicts for more than a decade,” said Keir Giles, an expert on Russian information warfare at Chatham House, a think tank. “If not much attention is paid to the security of these vital assets, Western countries alone bear the blame.”
Here you will find everything you need to know about the threat to submarine Internet cables.
What is a submarine cable?
Nearly all of the world’s Internet traffic is carried over a global network of more than 400 fiber optic ducts that together span 1.3 million kilometers. They are operated almost exclusively 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 these cables connecting the EU to the US, arguably the most important digital relationship in the world, although similar networks connect Latin America to Asia and Africa to Europe, respectively.
Part of the vulnerability is due to the location of these cables. They are spread all over the world and are often found in extremely remote areas, which are easily accessible to submarines or unmanned underwater vehicles. The lack of regulatory oversight of how these networks operate also makes it difficult for companies and governments to protect them. Most of these pipelines are in international waters.
There are also so-called bottlenecks, or critical areas where major undersea 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 make landfall after passing through Egypt’s Suez Canal. For the US, the New York waterfront is the main connection point to Europe. The UK’s western shores represent a hub between the US and the rest of Europe.
What is the threat? It is real?
Concerns have focused on a foreign government, such as Russia, China or North Korea, sabotaging these undersea cables, which are mostly unprotected and beyond the control of Western governments. National security officials have warned that adversary regimes may also attempt to access these pipelines for surveillance purposes, although both US and European authorities have carried out deep-sea cable-trap activities.
The risk is not new. For at least a decade, lawmakers have pointed out that undersea Internet cables are an easy target and need more government support to keep them safe. Almost two years ago, Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary General of NATO, told reporters submarine cables were vital not only for civil society purposes, such as the functioning of financial markets, but also “for different military capabilities”. Most Western militaries can quickly turn to backup satellite communications if these undersea cables are compromised.
So far, concerns about the vulnerability of these seabed cables have yet to be confirmed in reality. Nearly two-thirds of all faults detected on these cables, for example, are directly related to shipping, whether it’s fishing nets upsetting pipes or ship anchors accidentally causing damage, according to data from TeleGeography, which tracks the industry. The remaining faults are mainly due to normal wear or environmental reasons 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 2021 and January. 2022, respectively, for alleged human activity. Oslo has so far not attributed these failures to any specific group.
What would an attack look like?
British and American military officers have repeatedly warned Russia has the technical skills to take out 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 would require a submarine or unmanned vehicle to place explosives at critical points in the network.
“Russia has increased the ability to compromise those undersea cables and potentially exploit those undersea cables,” Tony Radakin, head of the UK military, told an audience in January.
No one denies that Moscow has the ability to attack these targets. But what it lacks is the ability to carry out attacks around the world on a scale that would significantly hamper the Internet infrastructure of the West. In recent years, companies have built multiple redundancies into their undersea networks, primarily to ensure that any short-term damage doesn’t materially affect people’s online activity. As internet usage has skyrocketed, so have these deep-sea pipelines that now connect disparate parts of the world through multiple alternate routes.
If the Kremlin were to attack, for example, it could possibly take down part of a 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 act on a scale likely to be easily detectable by Western national security agencies. It would also harm Internet access for its own citizens.
“We’re no longer in the position that once we cut a wire and it all fell apart,” said Giles of Chatham House.
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