US Navy officials have warned for years that it would be devastating if Russia, which has been repeatedly caughtsnooping near the cables, were to attack them. The UK’s most senior military officer said in December that it would “immediately and potentially catastrophically” impact the economy were Russia to fault the lines. NATO is now planning to resurrect a Cold War-era command post in part to monitor Russian cable activity in the North Atlantic.
The idea of the global internet going dark because some cables were damaged is frightening. But if Russia or anyone else were to snip a handful of the garden hose-sized lines, experts say that the consequences would likely be less severe than the picture the military paints. The world’s internet infrastructure is vulnerable, but Russia doesn’t present the greatest threat. There are plenty of more complicated problems, that start with understanding how the cable system actually works.
Russia snipping a handful of cables in the Atlantic, where its submarines have been spotted, would disturb the global internet very little.
“The amount of anxiety about somebody sabotaging a single cable or multiple cables is overblown,” says Nicole Starosielski, a professor at New York University who spent six years studying internet cables to write the The Undersea Network. “If somebody knew how these systems worked and if they staged an attack in the right way, then they could disrupt the entire system. But the likelihood of that happening is very small. Most of the concerns and fears are not nearly a threat at all.”
For one, ruptures aren’t exactly an anomaly. One of the estimated 428 undersea cables worldwide is damaged every couple of days. Nearly all faults aren’t intentional. They’re caused by underwater earthquakes, rock slides, anchors, and boats. That’s not to say that humans are incapable of purposefully messing with the cables; off the coast of Vietnam in 2007, fishermen pulled up 27 miles of fiber cords, disrupting service for several months. (It wasn’t cut off completely, because the country had one more cable that kept the internet going.)
You don’t notice when a cable faults, especially if you live somewhere like the United States, because your Instagram message or Google Voice call is instantly re-routed. If you’re Skyping with a friend in Romania for instance, and a fishing boat or anchor ruptures a cable—as causes two-thirds of faults—your conversation simply goes over another line. Many regions, like Europe, the United States, and East Asia have numerous cables running over the same path. You can check out a map of them all here.
That means Russia snipping a handful of cables in the Atlantic, where its submarines have been spotted, would disturb the global internet very little. In fact, even if it ruptured every single cable in the Atlantic Ocean, traffic could still be re-routed the other way, across the Pacific.
“It wouldn’t work very well or be the highest quality, but it’s not like there wouldn’t be any communication happening,” says Alan Mauldin, research director at TeleGeography, a market research firm that specializes in telecommunications, including undersea cables.
Even in a hypothetical, Black Mirror-esque world in which Russia somehow chops every cable that connects to the United States from every side, the internet would not go out like a light. Americans would still be able to utilize land networks that connect the continent; it would just be impossible to communicate overseas.
“You can still email people in the US if all submarine cables were gone,” says Mauldin. “But people in Europe wouldn’t see your silly cat video you posted on your Facebook profile.”
Because faults happen so frequently, cable repair ships patrol nearly all of the world’s waters. Even if Russia did start snipping, there are crews equipped to rapidly repair them. Besides, Russia’s epic hypothetical cable attack would primarily harm its own people, as another Telegeography analyst pointed out in a video. “It would hurt the Russians perhaps even more than it would hurt [Americans]. They’re far more dependent on international networks than we are, because so much of our content is stored locally” says senior analyst Jonathan Hjembo.
That’s not to say that the world’s undersea cables aren’t at risk, or that they don’t need protection—especially in areas of the world with less internet infrastructure, like Africa and some parts of Southeast Asia. When a fault happens there, the consequences can be more severe, including genuine internet disruption.
“Cable damage can be a really serious problem, and can impair connectivity in parts of the world where they have limited access to cables,” says Mauldin. In 2011, for example, an elderly woman sliced through an underground cable while scavenging for copper, accidentally cutting off internet access for all of Armenia. The country spent five hours offline. The impact was so dramatic because Georgia provided nearly all of Armenia’s access to the internet, making that one cable vitally important.
Facebook and Microsoft Are Laying a Giant Cable Across the Atlantic
That single cable could be considered a “choke point,” or place where the internet infrastructure is at most risk, as Starosielski describes in a forthcoming article for the journal Limn. For example, in some areas, ocean cables must travel through narrow bodies of water that border several countries, like in the Strait of Malacca and the Red Sea. In these tight spots, there’s a greater risk of threats like dropped anchors. They’re also potentially subject to geopolitical disputes, since a larger number of countries and companies have an interest in the lines that run through those waters.
Several locales also serve as hubs for a large number of cables, and thus are sites of consolidated risk. If Egypt’s undersea cables ruptured, for instance, at least one third of the global internet could go down, according to Starosielski’s research. Fortaleza, a city in northern Brazil, is an undersea cable capital that connects North and South America. Were it compromised, it would take all data flowing from Brazil to the United States down with it.
Sometimes, the global internet is threatened not by anchors and the like, but by bad policies. In 2011 for example, as Starosielski notes in her article, Indonesia required that only ships with an Indonesian crew fix ruptured cables in its waters. The problem was that no such ships existed, causing repair delays for not just the country, but other regions that routed through it.
One thing we don’t need to worry about are sharks. Despite numerous media reports, they, and other fish, don’t pose a risk to the undersea cables we rely on to connect the world. “There’s been zero percent of cable faults attributable to fish bites or shark bites,” says Mauldin.
There have also been no ruptures attributed to Russian aggression. It appears that Putin has largely left the undersea cables alone, at least for now. In the meantime, we can work on addressing the more pressing ways the internet infrastructure is vulnerable.