This time it really is Cold War Part Deux.
In recent months, the U.S. Navy, intelligence services and the Pentagon have been watching the Russian Navy with increasing alarm. The Rooskies have been operating a little too close to the fiber-optic cables that run undersea carrying the internet hither and yon, particularly near Guantanamo Bay on Cuba, for rest and relaxation purposes. From The New York Times:
The issue goes beyond old worries during the Cold War that the Russians would tap into the cables — a task American intelligence agencies also mastered decades ago. The alarm today is deeper: The ultimate Russian hack on the United States could involve severing the fiber-optic cables at some of their hardest-to-access locations to halt the instant communications on which the West’s governments, economies and citizens have grown dependent.
Given that Vladimir Putin and company have been trying to cut off their country’s access to the rest of the world via the internet in test runs for a couple years, that fear is certainly real. Because, truthfully, severing the fiber-optic lines would not simply be cutting off Russia and their sphere of influence from the west, but cutting the west off from all commerce and communications on a global scale.
The Pentagon is justifiably mum on the details of the observed operations, but notes that Russian warships have been monitored patrolling near the known paths of the cables themselves in waters close to the United States, the North Sea, Northeast Asia, and, of course, Cuba among other sensitive locations.
“The level of activity,” a senior European diplomat said, “is comparable to what we saw in the Cold War.”
The Cold War…when we knew that the Soviets were monitoring the undersea communications cables, and we knew that they knew we knew they were doing it. Naturally, we knew that they knew that we knew, and…here we go again. And it isn’t as if the Russians had to do much in the way of discovery of where the majority of the cables are. Not only are the routes fairly well known, they pretty much follow the same paths as the original communications cables laid in the mid-19th century. The undersea environments in those locations are well known and understood by all parties, and at the time of the internet’s rise and the fiber-optic cable laying, the allies and enemies used existing communications treaties for agreements.
The exceptions are special cables, with secret locations, that have been commissioned by the United States for military operations; they do not show up on widely available maps, and it is possible the Russians are hunting for those, officials said.
Gre-e-e-a-a-a-t. Homeland Security lists these top-secret cable landing locations as critical assets or “infrastructure” to be protected in case of attack. The NYT claims they are close to Miami, New York, and Los Angeles without defining what “close” means in this context.
It isn’t just the United States that is watching Russian aggression around the internet cables with trepidation. Some of the NATO allies are watching the Rooskies as well. Norway being the one country actually named in the NYT piece sounding the alarm that the Cold War is heating up whether we want it to or not.
“The risk here is that any country could cause damage to the system and do it in a way that is completely covert, without having a warship with a cable-cutting equipment right in the area,” said Michael Sechrist, a former project manager for a Harvard-M.I.T. research project funded in part by the Defense Department.
“Cables get cut all the time — by anchors that are dragged, by natural disasters,” said Mr. Sechrist, who published a study in 2012 of the vulnerabilities of the undersea cable network. But most of those cuts take place within a few miles from shore, and can be repaired in a matter of days.
What worries Pentagon planners most is that the Russians appear to be looking for vulnerabilities at much greater depths, where the cables are hard to monitor and breaks are hard to find and repair.
And would cut off the United States from enough of the world for long enough periods to allow an actual attack or hack.
And the rest of the world wants to wrest control of the Internet from the United States. It certainly seems like the greatest communications tool yet to be invented is a threat to just about everyone else’s power play and perceived interests. And Obama wants to give control to someone else.