Rumors and speculation about why five undersea cables to the Middle East have been severed — and what it means for IT security.
Since Jan. 30, 2008, there has been a troubling pattern of underwater anarchy. At first, it was reported that two, then three, then five undersea fiber-optic cables in key bottlenecks global undersea Internet connection — off the coast of Egypt and in the Persian Gulf — had been severed. Initially, reports claimed that the two Egyptian cuts were due to a ship’s dragging anchor during inclement weather — an explanation that has since been discounted. In the meantime, three more cables appear to have been severed, (for a total of five), all with direct connections to the Middle East, India and Southeast Asia.
With no official account that would sufficiently explain why so many cable disruptions could occur in such a short period of time, rumors and speculation have swirled across blogs, offering explanations from the tongue-in-cheek to the telltale signs of imminent warfare.
What Happened, and When?
On Jan. 30 — five miles north of Alexandria, Egypt and deep in the Mediterranean Sea — two cables 400 yards apart were cut. One of the cables is owned by Indian company FLAG Telecom, a subsidiary of Reliance Communications Ltd.; the other, SEA-ME-WE 4, is owned by a consortium of 16 telecoms and connects 16 cities between Singapore and Marseille, France.
With the cuts, Egypt lost 70 percent of its connectivity, and India lost more than 50 percent of its outbound traffic, “messing up the country’s outsourcing industry,” according to The Economist. Initially, a spokesperson for FLAG Telecom told the The Register that the cut had been caused by a ship's anchor, but the Egypti's telecommunications industry told The Associated Press that there were no ships in the area at the time.
When a third cut occurred on another FLAG Telecom line on Feb. 1 — on the other side of the Arabian Peninsula, in the waters near Dubai — many online observers detected a pattern that some considered malicious. Some bloggers and commenters suggested that the cable cuts represented a precursor to an American invasion of Iran, fueled by incorrect and unfounded rumors that the cuts had left Iran in the dark (proof to the contrary can be found at Renesys and Google's Iranian search engine). Other theories (some of which are absurd) include scuba-diving jihadis attempting to disrupt American NSA (National Security Agency) surveillance; an attempt to delay the opening of the Iranian oil markets; seals (the mammals, not the elite commandos) trained by the U.S. Navy; and the monster from "Cloverfield."
Sceptics, meanwhile, have pointed to more mundane culprits such as undersea earthquakes or seafloor mudslides. The anchor explanation from the Alexandria, Egypt cuts seemed like a cover story to some observers, especially after Egyptian officials dismissed them. So many who saw a devious plan at work ignored the fact that the third cut had, in fact, been caused by a shipping incident, according to FLAG Telecom officials, after they discovered a 5-to-6-ton anchor near the scene of the disruption.
On Feb. 4, the Interational Herald Tribune reported that four cables had been cut. The next day, the Khaleej Times reported from Dubai that five cables run by FLAG Telecom and SEA-ME-WE 4 had been severed, affecting 1.7 million Internet users in the United Arab Emirates, in addition to at “least 60 million users in India, 12 million in Pakistan, six million in Egypt and 4.7 million in Saudi Arabia.” The fifth cable outage was due to power issues, but it was swept up into the perceived conspiracy web out of coincidence and convenience.
While the causes of three of the five cuts remain unknown, repair crews are en route. Officials from FLAG Telecom and SEA-ME-WE 4 estimate that the cables will be fully functional within three days, according to Reuters.
The comment storm across the blogosphere following these events has proved largely unreliable but has increased awareness of several important facts: The USS Jimmy Carter, a Seawolf-class nuclear-powered submarine, can spy on the Internet underwater; the Pentagon considers the Internet “an enemy weapons system”; and, President George W. Bush signed a secret order to expand the NSA’s network-monitoring programs just four days before the first two fibre-optic cables were mysteriously disrupted.