The specter of attacks on Internet cables under the sea

US President Joe Biden has warned that Russia is considering attacks on critical infrastructure. One of the scenarios discussed since the start of the war in Ukraine is that Moscow is going after submarine cables in order to cut the world off from the Internet. A disaster scenario is more difficult to implement than it seems.

Joe Biden blew winds of anxiety over the global cyber landscape on Monday, March 21. The President of the United States said that “the Russian state is studying various possible avenues of cyber attacks,” adding that it is based on “ever-changing information.”

This is not the first time since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine that a US CEO has warned of the danger of attacks organized by hackers on the orders of Moscow. The day after the Russian attack, Washington said it was “prepared” to fend off any Russian cyberattack.

>> Read also: Ukraine: Russia accused of possessing a cyber weapon

More than 430 undersea cables have been threatened

But this time, Joe Biden urged US companies to “close their digital doors” as quickly as possible to protect themselves. Joe Biden concluded that “the unprecedented cost to Russia of sanctions decided by the international community may push Moscow to retaliate against the West in cyberspace.”

In other words, Russian President Vladimir Putin, besieged by sanctions, would now be ready to escalate the war by directly attacking NATO countries with electronic weapons. Accusations that Moscow was quick to categorically reject. “The Russian Federation, unlike many Western countries, including the United States, does not engage in this kind of digital state banditry,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

But Joe Biden’s warnings nonetheless brought back to the media the specter of a digital catastrophe scenario that could see Russia deprive the entire world of the Internet by attacking submarine cables for cloth.

This hypothesis has been put forward more than once, even in the highest military circles since the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis. In January 2022, Admiral Tony Radakin, the commander of the British armed forces, declared that Moscow could “jeopardize the information circulation system that relies on numerous submarine cables”, reports The Guardian. A hypothesis shared by the highly influential US think tank Atlantic Council, which published a summary, at the beginning of the year, dedicated to these risks.

It must be said that more than 430 submarine internet cables are tempting targets for anyone who wants to disrupt global connectivity. Often considered one of the weak links in the global network, these cables “look like large garden hoses lying on the sea floor,” describes Tobias Liepetrau, a specialist in international relations and computer security issues at the Danish Institute of International Studies.

Above all, they benefit from no special protection, except for “integrated monitoring systems that make it possible to alert if a threat is nearby,” continues this researcher who co-authored a study on submarine cable security. Network published in Contemporary Security Policy in 2021.

Easy to hide attacks…

Helpless “victims” who are fairly easy to attack. “It is theoretically very easy to hide submarine cable sabotage,” said Christian Bueger, who is also a co-author of an article in Contemporary Security Policy who specializes in maritime security issues at the University of Copenhagen, contacted by France.

It is enough for a merchant ship or fishing boat to drop anchor over a submarine cable not far from the coast (where such infrastructures are not very deep) to damage it. Divers or submariners can also come in and place explosives on these cables or install mines nearby, which can then be operated remotely.

Operations that seem easy to achieve amazing results are very expensive for Western economies. Once a European Internet user connects to their Gmail inbox, tweets or “likes” a high school friend’s message on Facebook, their requests cross the Atlantic over these undersea cables.

“It is essential if you are looking to transfer data to countries that do not have terrestrial connections to your current location,” Emile Appine, IT security specialist at the RIPE Network Coordination Center, told FRANCE 24. A regional register of IP addresses (web addresses) for Europe and the Middle East in particular.

If the hypothesis of a Russian attack on these infrastructures is so worrisome, it is partly because “there are suspicious activities by Russia at sea near the places where these cables are,” recalls Christian Boeger. The Russian ships thus conducted exercises not far from Ireland or Norway, where many of the undersea cables connecting Europe to the United States pass. Russian search boats were also spotted in 2014 off Portugal, again in an area with dozens of submarine cables. Years ago, there was a suspicion that “Russia was preparing something,” Christian Boeger notes.

…but difficult to implement

For this expert, there is also “the impression that during every conflict the means of communication are always part of the priority objectives. During the Second World War, it was the telegraph, today the cables will be under the sailors.”

Except that depriving the world of the Internet is not as easy as making the means of communication unavailable by cutting electrical wires at the front in 1939. “Attacking a cable is a bit like destroying a single lane on a ten-lane highway,” Emile Lapin sums up. Highly connected countries, such as most European countries, the United States, or Asian countries, have more than one submarine cable to connect them to the world. Precisely because these infrastructures are fragile.

“Except for a few isolated islands, a few countries will not be deprived of the Internet if only two or three cables are damaged,” admits Tobias Liptrau. This would be the case for the archipelago of the Azores, the island of Madeira or the Australian state of Tasmania.

“Russia should therefore launch a large-scale military operation to truly threaten Internet access for the United States or Europe,” said Tobias Liepetau. It will first be necessary to carry out surveys to find out exactly where each cable is “because in the case of maps, they are deliberately inaccurate,” this expert points out.

Russia will then have to muster a large number of ships and submarines to strike all the targeted cables simultaneously. “Perhaps the most effective operation is a targeted operation in the Suez Canal, where a large part of the circulating data passes between Europe and Asia,” estimates Christian Boeger.

In addition, this type of action would primarily cause harm to the civilian population. “If there is no alternative to submarine cables for the daily use of the Internet [gérer des flux financiers, regarder des films, jouer aux jeux vidéo]Some of the less data-intensive communications, such as military or intergovernmental communications, can be supported by satellite networks,” said Christian Boeger.

For this reason, even if submarine cables theoretically emerge as first-choice targets, “it is unlikely that this would be an option that Moscow would choose,” estimates Tobias Liebetrau. Indeed, there is no doubt that this type of attack would be considered an act of war by the West. This is what British Admiral Tony Radakin said. Perhaps Moscow would not be prepared for such an escalation of a resource-intensive operation without having a noticeable impact on NATO’s military capabilities.

On the other hand, the Russians could attack one or two of the cables “to issue a symbolic warning,” Christian Boeger estimates. History to put a finger where it could hurt and prove they know how to do it.

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