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We Asked an Expert What Would Happen if Russia Cut the Pipeline to the Internet

An expert in mass communication and author of the book 'The Undersea Network' explains why we shouldn't be too worried about Russia cutting our internet cables.

by Brian McManus
Oct 27 2015, 6:42pm

A Russian submarine at the Saint Petersburg Submarine Museum. Photo via Getty.

It's sometimes easy to forget (if, in fact, you ever knew) that the information superhighway travels mostly in huge cables buried deep at sea—miles and miles of fiber optic wire that carry on them 95% of our daily communication and $10 trillion (!) worth of global business. If someone were to sever enough of said cables, our tenuous grasp on the modern world would be lost. Electronic banking would be a distant memory, your smartphone would be just a phone, and door-to-door encyclopedia salesmen would descend upon suburban neighborhoods again. In short, life would be hell.

These usually distant fears have been stoked recently by Russian naval activities. According to a story in the New York Times on Sunday, Russian spy planes and submarines are "aggressively operating near the vital undersea cables that carry almost all global Internet communications." American intelligence officials are reportedly worried that this activity could mean the Ruskies are scouting vulnerabilities and thinking of cutting the cables sometime in the future.

Feeding the fear, of course, is the fact that our relationship with Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, has never been more frayed. With military plays in Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, and Syria, he's thumbed his nose at the U.N., and tensions between the US and Russia are at dangerously high levels not seen since the Cold War—something Putin's cagey meeting with Obama late last month illustrated.

So, how likely is it that Russia would cut these cables, and what would it look like if they did? For that answer we asked Nicole Starosielski, Assistant professor of media, culture, and communication at New York University, and author of the book The Undersea Network (Duke University Press), which is accompanied by an interactive digital mapping project, where readers can trace cable routes, view photographs and archival materials, and read stories about the island cable hubs. She made us feel a bit better.

VICE: Russian submarines and spy ships are, according to the New York Times, "aggressively operating" near vital undersea cables that carry almost all global internet communications. There's a growing fear the Russians will cut these cables in some of their hardest-to-access locations. On a scale of one to ten, how totally petrified should we all be about this?
Nicole Starosielski: I don't think we should be totally petrified about this. Or, at least, we should be much more scared of other things before we worry about a Russian threat to US internet traffic. By and large, our network is concentrated along a set of narrow cable routes, which are regularly disrupted by everything from natural disasters to fishermen's anchors. These take out more cables than deliberate cable cutting ever has.

What would it take to cut cables in these "hardest-to-access" locations? Something tells me we're not just talking a couple divers and a pair of bolt cutters.
It wouldn't take much to cut cables in the deep sea. They can be severed just as easily, and using the same means, as shallow water cables. They can be cut with an anchor, a grapnel, or any large, sharp device dragged along the seafloor. It would actually be easier than sending divers down with bolt cutters.

Walk us through what happens if, say, tomorrow we wake up and these vital cables have been severed. Will the internet disappear? Will we have to engage with strangers instead of staring into our smartphones?
This really depends on how many cables are cut, and where they are routed. Cable breaks are actually fairly routine—on average once every three days. But in most cases, traffic can be redirected. When the 2011 tsunami severed a number of the undersea cables in Japan, the country remained online, in part because of its massive number of international connections. In other cases, such as in nations that only have a few cables, a single break could be disastrous. There are a number of occasions when the internet has disappeared after a set of cable cuts. The 2006 Hengchun earthquake severed a number of cables near Taiwan—a pressure point in the global system—and made the internet inaccessible for many, disrupted financial transactions, and brought down other critical systems. In the United States, however, you'd have to cut quite a few cables before anyone would have to start engaging with strangers.

In the Times story it says these cables carry "global business worth more than $10 trillion a day, including from financial institutions that settle transactions on them every second." What does the cutting of these cables mean to us in a financial sense? Should we all be hoarding our money under our mattresses? Will our ATM cards stop working?
Stephen Malphrus, staff director at the US Federal Reserve Board, has said if the cable networks are disrupted, "the financial services sector does not 'grind to a halt,' rather it snaps to a halt." If the undersea cable network stopped operating, it would not only disrupt connections between major financial institutions, but would affect many of our everyday financial transactions. ATM cards included. Online banking would be out of the question. But again, these cuts already happen on a regular basis, and are disproportionately felt in regions with fewer cables.

Beyond spy planes, in what ways does the US monitor the kind of activity we're talking about near these cables?
By and large, cables aren't monitored. They stretch thousands of miles across the ocean, and it's simply too much work to monitor them all. Cable companies have been trying to monitor their lines for over a century, using all kinds of tactics: helicopters, patrol boats, and so on. But that hasn't prevented them from being broken time and time again by fishermen and boaters in the coastal seas

If the Russians did this, wouldn't it disrupt their own internet communications, too? What would be the upside in this for them?
Yes, this is certainly a problem. A worker in the industry once told me that contemporary cable cutting would be kind of like standing out on a tree limb and then sawing it off—you'd disrupt your own networks at the same time. If a Russian submarine were to cut a number of cables linking to the United States, this wouldn't just affect the United States. It would affect all of the countries that use these links to get somewhere else, and all of the countries linking to the United States. We're a huge node in the global communications system, so the effects would extend far beyond our national boundaries. If any country, Russia or otherwise, simply hoped to cause widespread disruption for anyone using digital media, then this might be an effective technique. But it's an indiscriminate one.

Doesn't it seem kind of old fashioned that the entire infrastructure for our data is run through big-ass underwater cables?
Well it is quite old fashioned—undersea cables are one of the oldest global communications technologies. Even though the lines have been updated from copper telegraph wires to high-speed fiber optics, they're still being laid much like they were 150 years ago. And they often run along the same routes. But they're the most effective and efficient way to communicate today. Cables carry data traffic at faster speeds and lower cost than satellites, and it's unlikely that we're going to move on from them anytime soon.

Why aren't the locations of the cables more closely guarded or kept classified?
The most significant human threat to cable systems has never been intentional sabotage. This has been an anomaly in the history of cable disruptions. The biggest threats are from boats that unintentionally drop anchors or nets on cable systems. Some cable companies allocate hundreds of thousands of dollars annually just to repair these disruptions, which they assume will happen. The best protection against this threat is the publication of cable routes, so that way fishermen and other boaters won't accidentally break them. Military cable routes, on the other hand, are kept classified.

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