World News

03.30.13

What Were Egypt’s Divers Up To With Underwater Cables?

Internet service throughout the Middle East was disrupted this week when three men severed fiber-optic links. Was it just an accident, or a warning to the world about unprotected lifelines?

Maybe the three scuba divers were just idiots. Or spies. Or saboteurs. It’s hard to tell from the Egyptian military’s statements about the men it arrested this week for allegedly cutting an undersea fiberoptic cable carrying vast amounts of Internet traffic between Europe, the Middle East and Asia. But whatever the motive, the incident underscores once again just how vulnerable global communications really are.

According to the official Egyptian news agency, the three divers said they were doing underwater salvage work less than a kilometer off the coast from the city of Alexandria. There have been violent protests there in recent days, raising the question of a possible link. Religious zealots often rage against the openness of the Internet. (Saudi Arabia is threatening to shut down Skype and other encrypted services.) And there are always many Egyptians who see the hand of Israel in supposedly nefarious plots. But according to the Egyptian news report on this incident, these three were basically just diving for junk. And when they saw a cable about the diameter of a garden hose on the floor of the Mediterranean they decided to take a chunk of that, too.

The effect was a little like rats chewing an electric wire, but instead of a few lights flickering, the divers disrupted Internet service in Egypt and far beyond. So, if that was by accident, just imagine what a terrorist might do on purpose: 95 percent of the world’s voice and data traffic travels through undersea cables. Only about 5 percent goes via satellites, and they could never take up the slack if a major part of the cable infrastructure were shut down. Just for example, more than a trillion dollars' worth of international banking transactions is conducted through fiberoptic cables every day.

In his 2008 book The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA From 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America, author James Bamford wrote that so many fiberoptic lines have been laid underwater in the last two decades that “the seabed now resembles a ball of string.” And even if that’s a colorful exaggeration (there are about 200 cable systems around the world), at the points where the those cables come ashore, whether off Alexandria or Mumbai, or quiet little towns on the New Jersey shore, they are at risk from ship anchors, from people who want to tap into communications (a fairly complicated business), and from those who want to cut them, whether for money or for malice.

“It is naïve to assume that submarine-cable landing stations, cables, the cable ships, and the marine depots that maintain the systems will escape asymmetric terrorist attacks.”

Even more striking, once the cables are a few miles offshore, beyond territorial waters, there is no law that protects them. “There is a glaring gap in international law about destruction of cables,” says Douglas R. Burnett, an attorney and veteran naval officer who specializes in these issues. The international law of the sea addresses many issues about cables, he says, “but not hostile attacks.”

An article Burnett wrote for Proceedings of the U.S. Naval Institute last year was a call to action that so far has been largely unheeded. “It is naïve,” he says, “to assume that submarine-cable landing stations, cables, the cable ships, and the marine depots that maintain the systems will escape asymmetric terrorist attacks.”

There are precedents. In June 2010, terrorists in the Philippines hit a cable-landing station. An Indonesian cable was attacked as well. But the most spectacular disruption came in March 2007 at the hands of Vietnamese pirates. Using several boats, they went after two submarine systems just to steal the fiberoptic cable and related equipment. That shut the systems down entirely for 79 days. “There are known to be idiots in the world,” says Burnett.