Cable cuts raise security questions

22 Feb 2008

The security of the international submarine cable networks has been called into question once again, after the recent cable cuts in the Mediterranean Sea severely disrupted internet and phone services between Europe, the Middle East and South Asia.

On February 1 a cable owned by Q-Tel of Qatar, which links Qatar to the United Arab Emirates, was cut. On the same day another cable, known as Falcon (owned by Flag Telecom), was cut around 56 km from Dubai on the segment between UAE and Oman. The network failures came only two days after the SeaMeWe-4 and Flag Telecom's Europe-Asia Cable were severed off the coast of Alexandria, Egypt.

The disruption of Falcon and SeaMeWe4 - which account for the majority of international communications between Europe and the Middle East - resulted in serious communications breakdowns in Egypt, Saudi Arabi, India and all of the Gulf States.

In the United Arab Emirates, the public and private sectors experienced television and phone outages, in addition to the widespread internet outages. India, with its lucrative outsourcing industry to process customer service calls, also took the hardest hit, experiencing a loss of half of the country's capacity.

While services on the four broken undersea cables was restored by February 10, analysts suggest that the successive damage of these cables highlights the increased importance of reliability in the world's undersea cable networks, which carry over 95% of the world's international internet and telephone traffic.


For years cable owners have been working hard to minimize accidental damage with different methods, such as making cable routes available to those that need to know (such as fishermen, navies and research vessels) and deliberately avoid cable route from such hazards as earthquake-prone zones and rocky seabeds. Despite this, there is an unspoken assumption that the networks are safe from deliberate human sabotage. The recent spate of cable failures, however, has called this assumption into question, said Matt Walker, a senior analyst at Ovum RHK.

Conspiracy theories of deliberately cutting communications line to west Asia, primarily Iran, gained ground quickly in cyberspace, despite cable owners have claimed that they were cut after ships weighed their anchors over them.

Walker said while there could be several reasons causing the outages, there is the possibility of human attack, given the geographically position and the fact that undersea cables are a ripe target for those with an interest in wreaking havoc on international communications, whatever their motivation.

The Persian Gulf is shallow but the Mediterranean reaches depths of several kilometers not too far from the coast. Without knowing the exact depth of the Mediterranean outages, accidental damage from fishing, anchors or dredging is certainly possible, and highly likely in the shallow Gulf, Walker wrote in a research note.

'Four breaks in two separate locations in a single week are rare but hardly impossible, or proof of a conspiracy, 'he said. 'Intentional sabotage is, after all, probably more feasibly done in shallow waters than deep, and cable security in shallow waters is only modestly more practical.'
That said, cable owners must also consider physical security to protect against deliberate human attack or sabotage, in addition to having multiple independent operators of ring- or mesh-based networks, with built-in restoration capabilities and multiple redundant links between cable stations and city gateways.

'If ports, railways, gas pipelines and other types of networks are being secured against possible sabotage, we must similarly increase the security of undersea optical highways,' Walker insisted. 'Guaranteeing reliability is impossible, but an improvement on current hands-off approach is long overdue.'

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