What's really up with data disconnects in the deep blue sea?

There's always a catch if you blame it on trawlers

Opinion It was once just an annoyance, even a relief. Now it's paralyzing. "The internet's gone down" signals a halt to all actions, all plans, except the desperate search for reconnection. That's just if it's personal: the consequences for businesses can be much worse. As for entire islands, military alliances or global markets: barely one step away from stone axes.

What's worse, there's a lot of it about. Last week, Taiwanese islands and Vietnam reported significant outages due to submarine cable breaks. Previously, another big salty snag in Asia even affected UK police crime reporting systems: yay, global cloud. Even the remote Scottish archipelago of Shetland, where nothing ever happens, saw days of unscheduled away-from-keyboard at the end of last year. We've had undersea data cables since 1851, plenty of time to work out how to make them less prone to accidental snappage. Careless fishermen aren't exactly a novel phenomenon either. Why is it so hard to fathom what's going on?

Both the Taiwanese island and the Vietnam outages have symbolic significance beyond the costs and inconvenience. Vietnam is profiting from technology companies wanting to diversify from reliance on China's manufacturing base, while Taiwan focuses China's increasingly militant ire for merely existing. As for Shetland, it may be a remote sheep poo repository, but it's also a key part of NATO's watch on Russian adventurism. It is home to RAF Saxa Vord, the UK's northernmost radar station, one that watches the key entrance to the North Atlantic between the UK and Iceland.

Is it plausible that some or all of the submarine cable breaks are deliberate attempts to unsettle rivals to Russia and China? It seems prime conspiracy theory territory, especially as the main victims of the Shetland break were crofters denied Netflix and shops unable to process contactless payments for whisky. Where's the evidence?

There are very good reasons that what is known isn't published. The unique vulnerability of the submarine cable network to sabotage and subterfuge was noted in 2020 by a confidential NATO report on US-Europe fiber connectivity. It was not good news: all of the cables are privately owned, so there was no cohesive security. Quite the opposite, as the precise locations of the cables, which carry 97 percent of US-Europe data, are public, and both Russia and China have been developing capabilities to disrupt underwater infrastructure.

NATO also said at the time that it was building capabilities to monitor and protect submarine cables, but at this point the politics of peacetime antagonism kicked in. It's hard to monitor the many thousand kilometers of fiber for physical attack, or to distinguish between an accidental snagging by a trawler from a deliberate state action, but these are skills that were finely honed in the Cold War and have not atrophied. Back then, the US deployed a huge undersea acoustic monitoring system called SOSUS to track Soviet submarines. It worked very well, and as the threat's still there it's fair to say that its replacement, augmented by intensive satellite and other electronic surveillance, is much better.

The trouble is secrecy's oldest Achilles' heel – if you act on what you know, you risk revealing all and losing control. Take the extraordinary quadruple breach of the Nord Stream under-Baltic gas pipeline at the end of 2022. It is frankly inconceivable that nobody knows who committed such vandalism on that scale of such a key, highly politicized infrastructure in one of the great flashpoints of NATO-Russia friction.

This was no freighter dropping its anchor without checking the charts: a big boy did it and ran away. Both those who did it and those who didn't know exactly what happened. The consequences of having that out in the open where retaliatory action would have to be taken, though, are too horrible.

This applies in spades to deliberate interference with underwater infrastructure, and it won't get better while the problem is seen as an issue of military and state security. A hangover from the days when all telecommunications were state-operated, combined with strong encryption that allows top-level state traffic to use commercial subsea systems, it leaves responsibility for physical security awkwardly ambiguous.

A much higher level of open monitoring of this globally critical infrastructure is needed so that accidents and attacks will both be unambiguously instrumented. Imagine designing a self-surveilling subsea cable: you can't move for traffic cameras on the road these days so why not the data superhighway?

Whatever it is, you can't get away with it if the world is watching you do it. Engineering for resilience is also desperately needed, be it through terrestrial microwave, satellite, physical cable duplicates or whatever. A proper international civil liability agreement fit for the 21st century will also sharpen minds and focus resources.

A properly engineered, instrumented and visible global data network would give us more reliable connectivity, remove a highly dangerous source of volatility between powerful antagonists, and quench a whole bunch of conspiracy theories. When it comes to submarine infrastructure, we can no longer afford to be all at sea. ®

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