The extent of Russia's ability to cause untold damage to U.S. military and commercial interests by simply cutting undersea data cables, a fear stoked by a report this weekend in The New York Times, is unknown. But Moscow’s willingness to cut off civilian populations from the Internet — a tactic it has already used against regional political threats — may be cause for alarm.
The Times article quoted U.S. and European military and intelligence officials as saying they have observed a 50 percent increase in Russian naval patrols over the past year, including along critical points of the global Internet infrastructure — thousands of miles of fiber-optic cables, often sunk in hard-to-monitor depths of the ocean. Officials, speaking anonymously, told the Times that the increased submarine and spy ship activity has exacerbated concerns about underwater infrastructure being vulnerable to attack in the event of some future international conflict.
It would be “the ultimate Russian hack on the United States,” the officials said, halting “the instant communications on which the West’s governments, economies and citizens have grown dependent.”
Experts say the threat of such a far-reaching cut remains largely hypothetical, however. There have been cases where a country's sole access point was damaged — by a ship's anchor, for instance — but critical data infrastructure in the U.S. is designed to be highly resilient, with dozens of different pipelines and access points on its shores. In a globalized economy, it would also be difficult to target just one country; deliberately cutting off connectivity to a big financial center like the U.S. would send shockwaves across the globe.
Still, Russia watchers say Moscow has been testing its ability to disrupt Internet infrastructure on a more localized scale as part of its wider military spending spree since oil revenues spiked in 2007. “Yes, there is a program by Russians to do this," said Keir Giles, an expert on Eurasian security and director of the Conflict Studies Research Centre at the Chatham House think tank in London. “And yes, it has been intensified over the last decade along with every other Russian military activity.”
The most credible fear, at least for the U.S., is that Russia might try to interfere with the secret cables that carry classified data about American military and intelligence work across the globe, Giles said. Unlike most other undersea data cables, these are not mapped. That is why some officials suspect the recent Russian submarine exploration may be aimed, in part, at gathering intelligence on where these pipelines run. Many countries, including the U.S. and Russia, are capable of tapping these cables to steal information, but cutting them would go a step further. It could even force the U.S. to revert to less-secure channels of communication, potentially undermining the intelligence-sharing apparatus.
But for now, the greater vulnerability lies far from U.S. shores. In both Crimea and the Baltic Sea, Russia has tried to disrupt undersea cables at weak points in the infrastructure, according to an excerpt from a forthcoming Chatham House paper, “Russia's New Tools For Confronting The West.” Last year, Russian special forces “selectively disrupted cable connections” at Crimea’s Simferopol Internet exchange point — the only point of access on the peninsula — to shut residents off from anti-Russian media and other sources of politically sensitive information. Coupled with the ban on pro-Ukrainian television programming, the result was Russia’s “total information dominance of the region.”
While countries scale up their cyber-defenses, fearful that viruses and malware pose a growing threat to national security, the underwater cables that carry nearly all global Internet communications remain largely unprotected. In cases like Crimea, where a state can gain physical access to this infrastructure, “you don’t necessarily need sophisticated technology or a Stuxnet,” Giles said, referring to the cyber worm, allegedly created by U.S. and Israel, that struck Iran in 2010. “You just need a few guys with bolt cutters to open the door and a few guys with expertise to cut the cables. Hence the need for civilian infrastructure to be better protected.”