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Explosions at two major national gas pipelines linking Russia to the European Union have Western policymakers wondering: what will be targeted next?
No one has yet taken responsibility for the attacks on Nord Stream energy pipelines. But US and European officials were quick to point fingers at the Kremlin – amid warnings the labyrinthine network of undersea cables that powers the global internet could be an inviting target.
Until now, few, if any, of these Internet cables – which connect all the continents of the world and represent the digital highway for everything from YouTube videos to financial market transactions – have ever been sabotaged by agencies. foreign intelligence or non-state actors.
But the threat is real. This is due in part to the weak security around these cables and the willingness of authoritarian regimes like Russia to attack non-military targets and use so-called hybrid warfare tactics.
“It’s been a target in conflict for over a decade now,” said Keir Giles, Russian information warfare expert at Chatham House, a think tank. “If there isn’t careful attention to securing these vital assets, Western countries have only themselves to blame.”
Here’s everything you need to know about the threat to undersea internet cables.
What is a submarine cable?
Virtually all of the world’s Internet traffic is carried over a global network of more than 400 fiber optic pipes that collectively stretch 1.3 million miles. They are almost exclusively operated 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 linking the EU to the US – arguably the most important digital connection in the world – although similar networks link Latin America to Asia and Africa to Europe respectively. .
Part of the vulnerability is due to the location of these cables. They span the globe and are often located in extremely remote areas, easily accessible to submarines or unmanned underwater vehicles. The lack of regulatory control over the operation of these networks also makes it difficult to protect companies and governments. Most of these pipelines are located in international waters.
There are also so-called choke points, or pivotal areas where important 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 crossing the Suez Canal in Egypt. For the United States, the New York coastline is the main point of connection with Europe. The western coasts of the United Kingdom represent a hub between the United States and the rest of Europe.
What is the threat, and is it real?
Concerns have centered on a foreign government – such as Russia, China or North Korea – sabotaging these undersea cables, which are mostly unguarded and beyond the control of Western governments. National security officials have warned that adversarial regimes may also try to tap into these pipes for surveillance purposes, although US and European authorities have carried out such entrapment activities on the high seas.
The risk is not new. For at least a decade, policymakers have signaled that undersea internet cables represent an easy target and need increased government support to keep them safe. Nearly two years ago, Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary General of NATO, told reporters that submarine cables were vital not only for the needs of civil society – 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 undersea cables have yet to materialize into reality. Nearly two-thirds of all faults detected on such cables, for example, are directly related to shipping, with either fishing nets disrupting the pipes or boat anchors accidentally causing damage, according to data from TeleGeography, which follows the industry. The remaining defects 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, by suspected human activity. Oslo has so far not attributed these flaws to any specific group.
What would an attack look like?
British and American military officials have repeatedly warned that Russia has the technical skills to take down parts of the world’s undersea internet infrastructure to cripple some of the Western digital networks. These pipelines are often located less than 100 meters underwater and would require a submarine or unmanned vehicle to plant explosives at critical points in the network.
“Russia has developed the ability to threaten these undersea cables and potentially exploit these undersea cables,” Tony Radakin, head of the British army, told an audience in January.
No one denies that Moscow has the capability to attack these targets. But what it lacks is the ability to carry out global attacks on a scale sufficient to significantly hamper the West’s internet infrastructure. In recent years, companies have built multiple redundancies into their undersea networks, primarily to ensure that any short-term damage will not materially affect people’s online activity. As internet use has skyrocketed, so have these deep-sea pipelines that now connect disparate parts of the world via multiple alternate routes.
If the Kremlin attacked, for example, it could possibly destroy part of a regional network linking the Baltic countries to the rest of Europe. But to have a long-term impact on the global network of submarine cables, Russia – or any other aggressor – would have to act on a scale that would likely be easily detectable by Western national security agencies. It would also harm its own citizens’ access to the Internet.
“We’re not in the position anymore where once we were there you cut a cable and everything breaks down,” said Giles of Chatham House.
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