Rumours abound on odder corners of the internet that a Russian signals intelligence ship has tapped into one of the main internet cables serving Syria. Sadly for the conspiraloons, it's almost certainly not true.
Various tinfoil hat nutters on Twitter – and, rather embarrassingly, Vice Media's tech offshoot Motherboard – are claiming that the Russian naval vessel Yantar is tapping into the UGARIT undersea cable, which runs between the Syrian port city of Tartus and the island of Cyprus.
A Google map (Google login required to view) of the Yantar's movements supposedly show her tracking up and down the route of the cable, just west of Tartus, in recent days.
Web monitoring outfit Dyn provided a graph to Vice claiming to show an increase in outages in Syria over recent weeks. Could it be true?
El Reg asked rival web monitoring outfit Akamai whether they had noticed anything unusual going on with web traffic to/from Syria lately. A spokesman said: “We graphed our month-to-date Akamai traffic delivered to users in Syria – nothing seems to be out of the ordinary – no obvious indications of intermittent outages.”
Akamai was previously at the forefront of reports that Syria's notoriously shaky web infrastructure had gone down last month, and provided a blog post at the time (scroll about halfway down for details of Syria) with plenty of detailed graphs.
Moreover, the practical challenges of cutting into an undersea cable are pretty formidable – even when you've got a submarine dedicated to doing the job, as this excellent Reg story from 2014 explains in thorough detail. Long story short, chopping into an undersea fibre optic cable potentially exposes you to a 10,000VDC electric shock, assuming you've managed to get through the armoured sheaths of various materials first. Not an easy job on land, let alone several hundred metres underwater.
As for the Yantar's antics? Yes, she's a cable-tapping and general signals intelligence ship. The Russian Navy has operated such vessels since the height of the Cold War and regularly shadows NATO warships and exercises to gather data from radio, radar and sonar emissions. That Yantar is patrolling up and down off the coast of Syria, a country racked by war and in which Russia has a direct political and military interest, should come as no surprise to anyone. After all, Britain maintains its own listening post on Cyprus at RAF Akrotiri, as well as a “beyond top secret” cable-tapping station at Seeb on the northern coast of Oman.
A Russian government press release from state propaganda outlet Sputnik tells us that Yantar was commissioned into Russia's Northern Fleet last year and that she carries two titanium-hulled “autonomous underwater vehicles” which are claimed to have a maximum diving depth of 6,270m.
The final nail in the coffin for the “Russia is hacking UGARIT” conspiracy theory comes from the simple knowledge that the Russian Navy maintains a forward operating base, providing basic refuelling and provisioning facilities, in the port of Tartus itself – where the UGARIT cable lands. Yantar's presence off Tartus is probably more to do with that than some kind of sneaky-beaky mission to snoop on Syrian web traffic. There are plenty of other methods by which that information could be obtained anyway – far easier technical methods (i.e. hacking) than sawing through and splicing into an undersea cable. ®