Every message we send via one of the messengers, every email and every photo, sharing or posting on social networks and every financial transaction, no matter how wireless it may seem from our point of view, are possible and depend on cables that are laid deep under the sea.
The speed of data transmission may have improved incredibly in the 21st century, but the path is the same as that with which telegraphic messages were sent more than 150 years ago. The hacking of the Internet via satellite in Hollywood movies seems glamorous, but the fact is that our entire digital life relies on wires that can be cut by ordinary better pliers. The only luck is that these wires are hard to come by.
Almost 98 percent of data on the Internet today is transmitted by cables located on the ocean floor. All global communication of this kind is done over just 400 cables with a total length of about 1.2 million kilometers, which are often located at depths that are twice the height of Mount Everest. They can contain one or two optical fibers and transmit information almost at the speed of light, and the installation of each costs several hundred million dollars. Some connect neighboring countries, and some stretch between continents and cover distances measured in tens of thousands of kilometers. An alternative to them are satellites, but they are even more expensive, and a slower variant of data transfer, and are more suitable for areas where it is difficult to lay cables.
The vast majority of underwater lines are in private hands, and manufacturers mostly manage them. The largest companies in this field are the American SubCom, the French Alcatel, the Japanese NEC and the Chinese Huawei. Over time, the big-tech giants Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook also entered the market, which have content for transmission and it suits them to build infrastructure, in which they have invested 1.5 billion dollars in the last five years. Google is at the forefront of investing in its own cables and owns or has stakes in at least 16.
Although deep-seated, submarine cables are susceptible to physical damage that can lead to Internet outages, sometimes across the continent. The biggest threat to them is the anchors of fishing boats, weather disasters, earthquakes, underwater construction projects, but also sharks, which have a special peak on them and like to bite them.
Since these cables are essential for the economy, but also for the security of the state, because confidential diplomatic and military communication is performed through them, the most feared are intentional attacks aimed at destroying or downloading information. Data theft is usually done by inserting background programs during cable production itself, spying on shore stations, or downloading information underwater.
Even during the Cold War, submarine cables were ideal for spying on military communications, and now the same activities continue in the digital sphere. Access by submarine cables also enables control over the digital infrastructure, which is the goal of all global powers. Cloud computing – the concept of sharing and storing resources – has become a big business around which “cloud wars” are fought between large technology companies, but also countries, and even more violent conflicts will be fought about it in the future.
As most cables are managed by American companies, that makes the United States superior and sensitive to possible interception and retrieval of data, which Moscow and Beijing suspect. For geopolitical reasons, American giants are under pressure to change the routes of their cables and bypass places where they could become the target of spies. The Trump administration made cables part of the Clean Network strategy and banned the use of Chinese technology in their construction.
Protecting underwater cables is thus becoming one of the priorities of states. The British Royal Navy is building a ship to protect vital cables that could become targets in “underwater warfare”. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also spoke about the monitoring and protection of this infrastructure after the defense ministers of the Allied countries discussed the report on the threat of transatlantic submarine cables, mainly from the Russians.
A few years ago, the New York Times wrote that “Russian submarines and spy ships are aggressively operating alongside vital submarine cables that contain almost all communication on the Internet, causing fear among US military and intelligence officials that the Russians may plan to attack those cables in times of tension or conflict.” .
Analysts at Russia’s Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) agree that Russians have been paying attention to these cables in recent years because of the NATO alliance, and that they have nuclear-powered submarines, ships and submarines that they can use to track them.
However, so far, Washington has been caught in this illegal activity – at the end of May, it was revealed that the American National Security Service (NSA) used the partnership with the Danish service to spy on the highest officials of Germany, France, Sweden and Norway. There are several key Internet cable hubs in neighboring countries in Denmark, and from 2012 to 2014, the NSA followed the calls and messages of politicians from friendly countries, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and current President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. It all happened during Barack Obama’s second term when Joe Biden was vice president.
Moscow relies less than its rivals on submarine cables, so the main race for control of the world’s digital infrastructure is taking place between America and China. Europe is also involved in the conflict, which should choose between loyalty to the USA and Chinese investments, while it is trying to keep pace with the game.
Washington and the main European allies cannot agree on the new Chinese cable “Peace”, which will go 10,000 kilometers by sea through China and Pakistan around Africa and stop near the French city of Marseilles. The cable is made by the Chinese company HNM, one of the shareholders of which is Huawei, which has been at the center of the conflict between the USA and China for a long time.
Paris does not intend to succumb to pressure from Washington, except that it might agree not to transmit certain data to “Peace”. President Emanuel Macron said that he did not want to isolate China from the Internet infrastructure, partly because he would not “depend entirely on American decisions.” Angela Merkel also disagrees with China’s isolation “in this digital age.”
Portugal, until recently the presidency of the EU, took the initiative in this field and recently put into operation EllaLink, a 6,000-kilometer-long cable connecting the city of Sines with Fortaleza in Brazil, and it was made by the Finnish Nokia. This is the first cable connecting Europe and Latin America and is part of the EU’s plan to take greater control of global internet traffic, with the enactment of a law for operators. EU countries, along with Norway and Iceland, signed a declaration in March calling submarine cables a vital infrastructure to protect against sabotage.