the specter of attacks on submarine internet cables

US President Joe Biden has warned that Russia is considering carrying out attacks on critical infrastructure. One of the scenarios discussed since the beginning of the war in Ukraine is that Moscow goes after submarine cables to isolate the world from the Internet. A disaster scenario that is more difficult to implement than it seems.

Joe Biden broke out, on Monday, March 21, a wave of concern in the global cyber landscape. “The Russian state is considering different possible avenues of cyber attacks,” the US president said, saying it was based on “constantly changing information.”

It is not the first time since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine that the US executive has warned against threat of attacks orchestrated by hackers by order of Moscow. The day after the launch of the Russian offensive, Washington even said that it was “ready” to protect itself from any Russian cyberattack.

>> Read also: Ukraine: they accuse Russia of having released the cyber weapon

More than 430 submarine cables threatened

But this time, Joe Biden urged US companies to “close their digital doors” as soon as possible to protect themselves. The “unprecedented cost inflicted on Russia” by theSanctions decided by the international community could push Moscow to take revenge on the West in cyberspace, Joe Biden concluded.

In other words, Russian President Vladimir Putin, cornered by sanctions, would now be ready for an escalation of war by directly attacking NATO countries using cyber weapons. Accusations that Moscow was quick to categorically reject. “The Russian Federation, unlike many Western countries, including the United States, does not engage in this kind of digital state banditry,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. .

But Joe Biden’s warnings have nonetheless defied the media taste of the day the specter of a digital catastrophe scenario that would see Russia deprive the entire world of the Internet by attacking undersea Web cables.

This hypothesis has been mentioned more than once, including in high military circles since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis. In January 2022, Admiral Tony Radakin, the head of the British armed forces, said that Moscow could “jeopardize the system for the circulation of information that relies on the many submarine cables”. remember the guardian. A hypothesis shared by the influential American think tank Atlantic Council, which published a summary noteat the beginning of the year, dedicated to this risk.

must say than the more than 430 Internet cables submarines are tempting targets for disrupting global connectivity. Often considered one of the weak links in the global network, these cables “look like big garden hoses lying on the bottom of the sea,” he describes. Tobias Liebethrauspecialist in international relations and computer security issues at the Danish Institute for International Studies.

Above all, they do not benefit from any particular protection, except for “integrated surveillance systems that allow alerts if there is a threat nearby”, continues this researcher, co-author of a study on the security of the submarine cable network. published in Contemporary Security Policy magazine in 2021.

Easy to hide attacks…

Helpless “victims” who are also quite easy to attack. “In theory, it is very easy to hide the sabotage of submarine cables,” he says. Christian Buegeralso co-author of the article in Contemporary Security Policy magazine and specialist in maritime security issues at the University of Copenhagen, contacted by France 24.

It would be enough for a merchant ship or a fishing boat to drop anchor just above a submarine cable not far from the coast (where these infrastructures are not too deep) to damage it. Divers or submarines can also come and place explosives on these cables or lay nearby mines, which can then be remotely activated.

Operations that seem easy for potentially spectacular and very expensive results for Western economies. As soon as a European Internet user connects to his Gmail inbox, writes a tweet or “likes” a message from a high school friend on Facebook, his requests cross the Atlantic through these submarine cables.

“They are vital if you are looking to transfer data to countries that have no land connections to where you are,” France 24 told France 24. emilio abencomputer security specialist at the RIPE Network Coordination Center, an NGO that serves as a regional registry of IP addresses (addresses on the Internet network) for Europe and the Middle East in particular.

If the hypothesis of a Russian attack against these infrastructures is so worrying, it is in part “because there have been suspicious activities by Russia in the sea near the places where these cables are located”, recalls Christian Bueger. Russian ships have thus carried out exercises not far from Ireland or Norway, through which several submarine cables linking Europe with the United States pass. Russian research vessels also had were seen in 2014 against Portugal, again in an area where there are a dozen submarine cables. Therefore, for years there has been a suspicion that “Russia is preparing something,” says Christian Bueger.

… but difficult to implement

For this expert, there is also “the impression that during each conflict, the media are always part of the priority objectives. During World War II it was the telegraphs, and today it would be the cables under the sailors.”

Except that depriving the world of the Internet is not as easy as making telecommunications inaccessible by cutting electric cables at the front in 1939. “Attacking a cable is a bit like destroying a single lane on a ten-lane highway,” Emilio sums up. Aben. Highly connected countries, such as most European states, the United States, or Asian countries, have many more than one submarine cable to connect them to the world. Precisely because these infrastructures are fragile.

“Apart from a few isolated islands, there are few countries that would be deprived of the Internet if only two or three cables were damaged,” admits Tobias Liebetrau. This would be the case of the Azores archipelago, the island of Madeira or the Australian state of Tasmania.

“Russia should therefore organize a large-scale military operation to really jeopardize the Internet access of the United States or Europe,” said Tobias Liebetrau. First, it would be necessary to carry out reconnaissance operations to know exactly where each cable is “because if there are maps, they are deliberately imprecise,” says this expert.

So Russia would have to mobilize a significant number of ships and submarines to attack all the targeted cables simultaneously. “Perhaps the most effective would be a targeted operation on the Suez Canal, where much of the data that circulates between Europe and Asia passes through,” said Christian Bueger.

In addition, this type of action would mainly harm the civilian population. “If there is no alternative to submarine cables for daily Internet use [gérer des flux financiers, regarder des films, jouer aux jeux vidéo]certain less data-intensive communications, such as government-to-government or military communications, could be supported by satellite networks,” said Christian Bueger.

For this reason, although in theory the submarine cables appear as targets of first choice, “it is very unlikely that it will be an option chosen by Moscow”, estimates Tobias Liebetrau. In fact, there is no doubt that this type of attack would be considered an act of war by the West. This is what British Admiral Tony Radakin said. And Moscow would probably not be prepared for such an escalation of an operation that would require a lot of resources without having a noticeable impact on NATO’s military capabilities.

On the other hand, the Russians could attack one or two cables “to issue a symbolic warning”, estimates Christian Bueger. History to put the finger where it can hurt and show that they know how to do it.

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