Of cables and conspiracies

Of cables and conspiracies
Of cables and conspiracies 

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 
South Asia.

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, 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, 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

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., 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, to the mass selling of dollars 
which would have instantly crashed [the American] economy. Marcus Salek 
of New World Order ( 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. 
All rights reserved.

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