Fiber cable choke points

By Eric Lundquist  |  Posted 2008-02-07 Email Print this article Print

At the start of World War I, the British cut the German transatlantic cables which required the Germans to reroute their transatlantic messages via U.S. or Swedish lines. You can read a synopsis of the cutting, the intercept of the rerouted cable traffic, the breaking of the German code and the resulting tensions between the U.S. and Germany over a memo (the Zimmerman telegram) seeking to draw Mexico into a the war against the U.S. at this site which features a history of cryptography.

I bring up this bit of ancient history to show that cable cutting has been a news item for a long time. Recently there has been a spate of broken fiber optic cables linking Europe to the Middle East that has led to lots of conspiracy theories ranging from special purpose built U.S, submarines to simply really bad luck.

A couple of points to consider

One. It used to be thought that tapping into fiber was difficult, almost impossible. Not true, fiber optic tapping is easier than tapping copper. You can get all the tap products you need for under $1,000.

Easy to tap is one thing but getting to the cable under a thousand feet of water is quite another. But remember, the purpose of tapping a data line is to get the information without anyone knowing. Sending a submarine (even the U.S.S. Jimmy Carter) around the world to slice up fiber cable and leave the cut cable lying on the ocean floor would be obvious and ridiculous. If you just want to cut cable, you could drag an anchor in the cable area and slice away all day.

Despite satellite transmission and multicable routes around the world, internet traffic is still restricted to a couple of bottlenecks. Cables from Europe to the Middle East generally head down the Suez Canal. If those cables are lost, then the routes become more complicated and often include round the world routing which even in these days of increased speed creates some significant latency. The KDDI map of undersea cables is a little out of date, but shows what a chokepoint the Suez is for cable. I'm not saying that the recent cuts might not have involved conspirators, but groups of related events don't always translate into conspiracy.

One takeaway from the recent fiber cuts is to reconfirm that despite the robust nature of the Internet, the Internet is not invulnerable and greater data rates means that fiber will be the transport mechanism for a long time to come |

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