• Leagues Under the Sea: Undersea Cables and National Security

    Leagues Under the Sea: Undersea Cables and National Security

    Undersea cables are extremely important to the international telecommunications industry. Undersea cables allow for instant communication between international borders while accounting for over 90% of the global data and voice transfer and becoming a key aspect of the global economy. The same can be said for Canada as 99% of the world’s transoceanic cables are provided via undersea cables.

    Canada has increased interest in undersea cables and is becoming increasingly reliant upon this new technology for both communications and business. In 2018, the Toronto-based company Crosslake Fibre laid “a 58-kilometre cable…across the bottom of Lake Ontario” to link to Buffalo, New York in an effort to provide “much more powerful bandwidth capabilities than satellite for lower cost”. In 2019, the Canadian government provided “15 million [CAD] investment for the deployment of a submarine fibre-optic cable between Sept-Iles and the Gaspesie region” with the stated desire to “improve telecommunication services’ reliability and security on the North Shore”. The government again provided funds to “improve internet access” by launching a submarine cable to Greenland. On February 11th of this year, the governments of Ottawa and Nova Scotia announced that they will collaborate on developing “an undersea testing platform”. 

    While undersea cables may not be given much thought initially in the realm of energy or technology, they are vital to the proper functioning of a modern nation, dealing with everything from communications to finance. However they are also incredibly vulnerable to attack. 

    It is well-documented that foreign powers, largely Russia and China, are engaging in information warfare activities against American citizens (and others across the globe) in an effort to destabilize American democracy and society while promoting their own foreign policy goals. This was made evident through Russian political interference on social media throughout 2016 and China’s hacking of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management in 2015, collecting millions of pieces of data on U.S. government personnel. It is evident that these foreign powers are now engaging in operations to hack into undersea cables. Multiple Western military commanders and international organizations have reported that “Russian submarines were operating worryingly close to various cables…[constituting] an immediate threat to transatlantic cables,” with additional examples of Russian sub and spy ship interference being reported in the North Sea, Baltic Sea, and the Arctic. 

    China, too, has engaged in this method of warfare, albeit in a much different way. As DefenseNews mentioned in a 2020 news article, China has begun incorporating undersea cable interference into official military strategies as well as nationalizing undersea cable manufacturing companies and installing government officials as their chief executive officers. The United States Studies Centre, an Australia-based non-profit focusing on the relationship between the U.S. and Australia, noted in a 2019 report that this strategy could pose troubles for the US and Taiwan in the South China Sea. There is a variety of ways in which undersea cables are threatened and pose a significant security risk to the safety and wellbeing of the United States and other nations.

    The threat to undersea cables is not just a national security issues, as it impacts human security as well. In 2017, after Hurricane Sandy hit the Eastern Seaboard of the US, many reported that undersea cables were severely disrupted. To quote Microsoft’s director of global network strategy in the Cloud Infrastructure and Operations division, “It was a major disruption. The entire network between North America and Europe was isolated for a number of hours. For us, the storm brought to light a potential challenge in the consolidation of transatlantic cables that all landed in New York and New Jersey”. Hurricanes and earthquakes (like those exhibited in Taiwan in 2006) have resulted in cable lines being disrupted, electrical outages, and the overall incapacitation of government. Not only that, but a more common threat to undersea cables comes in the form of “[accounting for about 60 percent of cut cable incidents] dropped anchors and fishing nets”. This has resulted in organizations clearly marking these cables on navigational maps and out at sea, basically allowing foreign powers to find these extremely important cables more easily. A better way for marking where these cables are located is imperative.

    As for solutions to this problem, many have commented already that such tactics (such as securing cable touchdown sites, diversifying the cable laying routes and ensuring they are kept away from geopolitically sensitive locations, establishing backup cables, and improving international legal statutes on cables and their uses) would be some of the first steps required to prevent such an attack and shore up the defenses of undersea cables. From a Canadian perspective, more effort could be expended to promote awareness of cybersecurity within the private sector by individual companies along with a robust emphasis on cybersecurity by the Canadian government. While Canada has, from a legal standpoint, been quite active in protecting data and other forms of cybercrime, most of this is not focused on better insulating undersea cables but rather protecting the acquisition of data and other forms of cybercrime that are more conventional. Given the rapid growth of the undersea cable system and how important they are in intercontinental business, contact, and trade, it is very apparent that necessary domestic and international laws must be implemented to better deal with the cyber and physical threats posed to the undersea cable industry.

    Ultimately, undersea cables are incredibly important to the functioning of a government and society. As shown, they offer increased communication abroad across all spectrums, allow for immense economic growth, and the ability to live a comfortable and modern life. Having these systems vulnerable to outside attack or to the elements is a major security flaw and one that must be corrected immediately, before irreparable damage is done to important centers that assist in making Canada a strong nation, domestically and abroad.

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