Achieving Cyber Resilience in Undersea Cable Networks

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Media reports have highlighted Russian attempts to disrupt critical undersea fiber optic cables in Northern Europe as part of a nefarious strategy to weaken Western economies and undermine national security strategies. 

On April 19, national broadcasters in Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden aired a series of programs that suggested the Russian government had implemented a covert operation to sabotage undersea cables across the region.

According to reports, Russia is already operating a fleet of clandestine surface (and sub-surface) vessels posing as commercial fishing trawlers and research ships in the North Sea, tasked with identifying undersea cables. And recently, the Financial Times reported that several Russian military ships were observed close to the Nord Stream pipelines in the days before the gas links between Russia and Europe were blown up last year.

Northern European broadcasters are also citing that Russian ‘ghost ships’ are already operating across northern Europe, avoiding detection by turning off mandatory automatic identification systems (AIS) used to track maritime traffic.

Read more: Submarine Cables at Growing Risk of Cyber-Attacks

Typically, undersea cables can be disrupted by various natural or man-made events, including underwater tremors and commercial fishing or shipping damage. 

However, once undersea cables have been identified by these ghost ships, Russia is capable of deploying specialist surface vessels or submarines to sever cables and disrupt levels of connectivity.

Furthermore, undersea cables are also susceptible to cyber-attack and ‘tapping,’ which allows an adversary to intercept sensitive information, often without detection.

Today, more than 400 undersea cables are active worldwide, typically concentrated in the Atlantic Ocean, Mediterranean Sea and North Pacific. 

In the digital age, undersea cables are responsible for transferring more than 90% of data worldwide to support a wide variety of use cases, including communications, economic and financial transactions. They are also critical in supporting national and international security strategies of governments who use them to share important communications.

This global network of undersea cables is almost exclusively owned and operated by a select number of private enterprises, including Alcatel Submarine Networks in France, Huawei Marine Networks in China, NEC in Japan and SubCom in the United States.

The market is also witnessing increasing levels of investment from the likes of Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft, all of whom are seeking to secure the interconnection of their data centers around the world.

What’s the Solution?

Thankfully, there are a number of actions available to governments seeking to protect undersea cable networks.

Examples include:

  • Encouraging greater international cooperation to share intelligence and successfully detect and deter threats
  • Demanding increased security amongst private sector operators
  • Implementing more effective, real-time monitoring and repair of undersea cables

Additional options available to governments include more dispersed undersea cable networks worldwide and greater frequency in maritime and airborne patrols, although this would be extremely difficult to enforce given the massive search areas involved.

Governments can also devise and execute contingency plans should undersea cables come under threat.

One of the most effective examples is diversification in connectivity – implementing a secure and resilient network of networks featuring undersea cables, high-frequency communications, and multi-orbit satellite communications, in particular low-Earth-orbit (LEO), which can offer resilience for the highest priority traffic, such as government, financial or industrial communications.

Such a strategy offers governments primary, alternate, contingency and emergency (PACE) communications networks, meaning if one pathway were to become disrupted, communications could be seamlessly transferred to another network.  

As the world moves deeper into strategic competition, undersea cables will continue to be a critical means for fast-moving connectivity around the globe. However, it will also become critical to keep pace with emerging threats and offer governments more secure and resilient communications routes should undersea cables become disrupted.

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