IT and Networks

How exposed deep-sea cables could leave the economy vulnerable to a Russian attack

Underwater fiber optic cables are responsible for transmitting 97 percent of global communications and $10 trillion in daily financial transactions, yet they are dangerously exposed, according to a new report in Policy Exchange, a London-based think-tank.

The report, “Undersea Cables: Indispensable, insecure”, found that the submerged communication cables are “inadequately protected and highly vulnerable to attack at sea and on land” and recommends increased protection. Leaders from the Department of Defense have said the Pentagon is investing $600 million in undersea systems over the next five years.

The cables come above water in several remote locations. These locations are publicly available and have minimal security, leaving them highly vulnerable to attacks from hostile state and non-state actors, according to the report.

Worse? The report points to Russia as a country that is likely to exploit this vulnerability by severing or tapping into the data lines. A sever in the cables could be catastrophic to web, while tapping into the lines could provide critical information about the world’s internet traffic.

“When Russia annexed Crimea, one of its first moves was to sever the main cable connection to the outside world,” warned Rishi Sunak, the author of the report and a conservative member of Britain’s parliament. “A successful attack on the UK’s undersea cable infrastructure would be an existential threat to our security.”

Crew members load supplies on USS Tennessee in the Atlantic Ocean. Exposed data cables in the North Atlantic seem to have caught the eye of Russian submarines in recent months. (Photo by Lt. Joe Painter/U.S. Navy)
Crew members load supplies on USS Tennessee in the Atlantic Ocean. Exposed data cables in the North Atlantic seem to have caught the eye of Russian submarines in recent months. (Photo by Lt. Joe Painter/U.S. Navy)

In December, the Washington Post reported that Russian submarines were antagonizing NATO by increasing naval activity around data cables in the North Atlantic, which provide internet and other communication connections to the United States and Europe.

“We are now seeing Russian underwater activity in the vicinity of undersea cables that I don’t believe we have ever seen,” U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Andrew Lennon, the commander of NATO’s submarine forces told the Post. “Russia is clearly taking an interest in NATO and NATO nations’ undersea infrastructure.”

The Policy Exchange report recommends developing a new international treaty to protect undersea cables as well as increasing security at vulnerable cable sites.

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