The New York Times reports that Russia has a series of submarines and spy-ships "aggressively operating" close the the undersea cables that carry the bulk of the world's internet communications.
In a piece written by David E. Sanger and Eric Schmitt, the pair raise concerns that "the Russians might be planning to attack those lines in times of tension or conflict" in what they refer to as "ultimate hack" on the United States. Sadly, they don't mean simply wire-tapping them: they're referring to the severing the fibre-optic cables that the western world relies on to send data around the world.
While there's no evidence that any such destruction has yet taken place, nor is there any public discussion of Russia's naval activity, Sanger and Schmitt claim that there's "growing wariness among senior American and allied military and intelligence officials" about the threat to the nation's digital communications. The authors describe what they have been privvy to:
In private, however, commanders and intelligence officials are far more direct. They report that from the North Sea to Northeast Asia and even in waters closer to American shores, they are monitoring significantly increased Russian activity along the known routes of the cables, which carry the lifeblood of global electronic communications and commerce.
Just last month, the Russian spy ship Yantar, equipped with two self-propelled deep-sea submersible craft, cruised slowly off the East Coast of the United States on its way to Cuba — where one major cable lands near the American naval station at Guantánamo Bay. It was monitored constantly by American spy satellites, ships and planes. Navy officials said the Yantar and the submersible vehicles it can drop off its decks have the capability to cut cables miles down in the sea.
While cables can and do get damaged, the pair suggest that concerns are centered around how Russia is studying the deepest cables — which are in turn the hardest to repair. While the locations of many of the cables in questions are no secret, some have been secretly laid by the U.S. military. and it's these cables that U.S. officials are likely most worried about. Regardless of which cables are targeted, though, the impact of their destruction could be huge.
For now, of course, the threat remains just that — a threat and nothing more. But the notion of Russian vessels circling the most important data links in the world is a stark reminder that physical attacks on undersea cables could have massive and wide-ranging impact on the entire world. Let's hope the concerns are never realised.
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