The Economist print edition
Feb 7th 2008
An online frenzy that seems way out of line
WHEN two undersea cables were damaged, apparently by ships' anchors,
five miles north of Alexandria on January 30th, it seemed like a
reminder of the fragility of the internet. The cablesone owned by FLAG
Telecom, a subsidiary of India's Reliance Group, the other (SEA-ME-WE 4)
by a consortium of 16 telecoms firmscarry almost 90% of the data traffic
that goes through the Suez canal. When the connections failed, they took
with them almost all internet links between Europe and the Gulf and
Egypt lost 70% of its internet connectivity immediately. More than half
of western India's outbound capacity crashed, messing up the country's
outsourcing industry. Over the next few days, as cable operators sought
new routes, 75m people from Algeria to Bangladesh saw internet links
disrupted or cut off.
But when, on February 1st, another of FLAG Telecom's cables was damaged,
this time on the other side of the Arabian peninsula, west of Dubai, the
story started to change. As an internet user known as spyd3rweb wrote on
digg.com, 1 cable = an accident; 2 cables = a possible accident; 3
cables = deliberately sabotaged. The conspiracy theories started to take
We need to ponder the possibility, declared a posting on
defensetech.org, that these cable cuts were intentional malicious acts.
And even if the first incident was just an innocent but important
accident, the second could well be a terrorist copycat event. Or
American villainy, said others. A user called Blakey Rat reported that
the US navy was at one point technically able to tap into undersea
fibre-optic cables using a special chamber mounted on a support
submarine. A website called the Galloping Beaver asked, where is the USS
Jimmy Carter??a nuclear attack submarine which had apparently vanished.
The notion that something spookier than ships' anchors was to blame
gained ground when Egypt's transport ministry said it had studied video
footage of the sea lanes where the cables had been, and no ships had
crossed the line of the breakage for 12 hours before and after the
accident (the area is, in fact, off limits to shipping). Suspicion
spread when yet another cablebetween Qatar and the United Arab
Emirateswent down on February 3rd. Beyond the realm of coincidence! said
a user of ArabianBusiness.com.
In fact, the fourth break was unsuspicious: the network was taken down
by its operator because of a power failure. But by that time the
conspiracists were in overdrive. Slashdot.org, a discussion board, said
Iran had lost all internet access on February 1st. A communications
disruption can mean only one thinginvasion, said bigdavex, quoting a
line from a Star Wars film. Bloggers in Pakistan, having recovered from
their disruption, returned with a vengeance. The broken cables, they
said, forced a delay in the opening of an oil bourse in Tehran; this
would have led, claimed pkpolitics.com, to the mass selling of dollars
which would have instantly crashed [the American] economy. Marcus Salek
of New World Order 101.com (nwo101.com) added that President Putin
ordered the Russian air force to take immediate action to protect the
Russian nation's vital undersea cables.
There is just one small problem: Iran's internet connectivity was never
lost. Todd Underwood and Earl Zmijewski of Renesys, an
internet-monitoring firm, reported that four-fifths of the 695 networks
with connections in Iran were unaffected. Most of the other theories
dissolve under analysis, too. Perhaps the American navy can bug
fibre-optic cables but it's not clear how. A report for the European
Parliament found in 2000 that optical-fibre cables do not leak radio
frequency signals and cannot be tapped using inductive loops.
[Intelligence agencies] have spent a great deal of money on research
into tapping optical fibres, reportedly with little success.
It may be rare for several cables to go down in a week, but it can
happen. Global Marine Systems, a firm that repairs marine cables, says
more than 50 cables were cut or damaged in the Atlantic last year; big
oceans are criss-crossed by so many cables that a single break has
little impact. What was unusual about the damage in the Suez canal was
that it took place at a point where two continents' traffic is borne
along only three cables. More are being laid. For the moment, there is
only one fair conclusion: the internet is vulnerable, in places, but
getting more robust.
Copyright 2008 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group.
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