There are 16 critical infrastructure sectors whose assets, systems, and networks are considered vital to the United States, but none is more important than the critical communications sector. The communications sector is a lifeline for the U.S. economy, underlying the operations of all businesses, public safety organizations, and government. Nearly 90% of global communications travel through a network of fiber-optic cables on the world’s seabed. It is estimated that $10 trillion in financial transfers and critical data make their way across these cables every day. Contrary to popular belief, satellites carry less than 1% of human communications, these crucial cables, no larger than a human wrist, sit on the seabed seemingly unprotected from sabotage. Tim Johnson of McClatchy DC Bureau talks about just how easy it would be to take down the Internet.
At one time, only the United States and the Soviet Union, now Russia, deployed submarines able to reach deep depths to manipulate fiber-optic cables. But deep-sea remotely powered vehicles are now widely available, putting the technology in more hands.
“All you need to do is give them a claw and sharp jaws and tell them to go down and clip the cable,” said Jim Hayes, president of the Fiber Optic Association, a nonprofit professional society based in Santa Monica, California.
Hayes said far simpler means can be found for those intent on damaging the cables, especially near the congested points where they make landfall.
“If you drag an anchor and start pulling with enough force, you can bend and kink the cable … and snap the fiber,” Hayes said.
“Because cables aren’t owned by governments, governments have ignored them,” Schofield said.
Perhaps not entirely. The U.S. government in the 1970s is known to have tapped a cable off the Kuril Islands in eastern Russia. And in 2013, National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed that U.S. and British spy agencies were stealing data from undersea cables.
A handful of other nations are believed to have the same capabilities.
Sunak, the British parliamentarian, laid out a number of steps to protect the undersea cables in a 46-page study published Dec. 1 by Britain’s Policy Exchange think tank.
In October 2015, U.S. authorities scrambled to monitor Russian submarine patrols and a high-tech Russian surface ship, the Yantar, in a corridor of the North Atlantic that hosts a cluster of undersea cables. The Yantar carried deep-sea submersibles and cable-cutting gear.
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History of the Transatlantic Cable