Severed ties: how cutting internet cables hurts local everyday life and global geopolitical relationships
In this article Liane Hartley, NPC Consultant explores the questions raised about the physical resilience of the internet following a well organised and targeted attack on critical long-distance internet cables in Paris.
Modern everyday life is increasingly reliant on digital connectivity. We need easy access to the internet to undertake everything from buying our groceries and managing our finances, to organisations running essential services. The virtually integrated network of the internet is served by a physically integrated network of fibres that carry digital information around the world via cables. These cables can be buried deep underground or laid across oceans.
Despite being vital to the stability of our systems and lifestyles, the recent case of deliberate damage to critical long-distance internet cables in Paris, has raised the alarm over how this physical means of transporting digital data is vulnerable to failure; either from similar types of deliberate attack or accidental damage. This is not the first of such attacks in France, and the damage caused thousands of people to lose connectivity for several hours.
The perpetrators responsible for the damage to cables in Paris are yet to be identified or to claim responsibility. What has become clear is that this was a targeted attack, professionally executed with clinical precision, pointing to this being strategically and professionally planned. Whilst internet providers were able to restore that connectivity relatively quickly through backup networks, and others only experienced slower connections, this incident has left questions over when the next attack may occur and how complacent we should be over the internet’s physical resilience.
To give examples, the EU review of sub-sea cables cited that more needs to be done to protect them, and University of Oxford department of politics and international relations research concludes “the best way to fight against these attacks is to have a better threat intelligence.”
This incident also raises questions about the UK’s own vulnerability to such attacks. Back in 2017, a report for the Policy Exchange by Rishi Sunak discussed that sabotaged cables could pose “an existential threat” to British security, with even relatively limited damage having the potential to “cause significant economic disruption and damage military communications.”
Five years on and the new Chief of the Defence Staff, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin has warned of Russia’s threat at sea, and with underwater cables acting as “the world’s real information system”, that any attempt to damage them could be “an act of war”. Russia has precedent in this area; it prioritised severing Crimea’s internet cables when annexing this territory in 2014. Furthermore, the Royal Navy has been tracking recent Russian submarine activity, and there has been speculation that a collision in late 2020 between HMS Northumberland and a Russian submarine had disrupted Russian cable-mapping activity.
A number of solutions have been explored to tackle the vulnerability of internet cables including:
- Establishing cable protection zones where fishing, anchoring and other activities that could interfere with cables would be prohibited.
- Using international law and treaties as mechanisms to criminalise foreign interference with cables.
- Greater deployment of “dark cables”, which are hidden backup networks not easily identified or mapped.
The UK has also explored the deployment of Multi-Role Research Vessels “to help with data gathering but also help us protect critical national infrastructure and undersea cables.”
Building on the experiences of the attacks in France and the damage seen to 5G communications towers in the UK over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, we need to understand the level of vulnerability of our UK and global internet cable infrastructure, and what needs to be done to address this before any further serious attacks threaten our everyday life and global geopolitical relationships.