Nokia recently won a 5G contract with US Cellular, the fourth largest wireless service provider in the United States, another step in building US 5G without Chinese telecommunications Huawei. Yet despite all the noise around 5G, cloud, and other emerging technologies, the internet still vitally depends on a much less flashy undersea cable infrastructure that carries internet traffic along the bottom of the sea. ocean.
For centuries, submarine cables have carried information between continents, from electric telegraphs and voice calls to Internet data. Today, the Internet literally wouldn’t work without them: it is estimated that over 95% of intercontinental Internet data passes through these cables. While these metal tubes don’t get much media coverage or political attention, they underpin everything from civil communications and business transactions to scientific research and the sharing of government documents on the global Internet.
As detailed in a new report from the Atlantic Council, three trends are accelerating the risks to the security and resiliency of these cables. Authoritarian governments exercise more control over Internet companies at their borders to manipulate the Internet infrastructure in their favor. More and more cable owners are deploying remote network management systems for cable infrastructure, and these systems are often poorly secured, increasing cybersecurity risks. And the increasing volume and sensitivity of data flowing over cables increases the incentives that states and other actors must spy on or disrupt traffic. Given these trends, US policymakers should better protect this vital infrastructure in cooperation with the private sector and their allies and partners around the world.
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Submarine cables are owned by combinations of private companies, public companies and international consortia around the world; a single cable can have between one and dozens of owners. These owners are distinct from the entities that manufacture cable components (for example, the fiber, the metal casing that surrounds it) and those that lay the cables along the ocean floor. cable is expensive and logistically complex, with longer cables connecting many different countries costing hundreds of millions of dollars. All of these owners can help cover the costs and manage the landing points where the cable meets different shorelines.
Nonetheless, some authoritarian governments, especially China and Russia, are exerting increased control over Internet companies at their borders to favorably manipulate the Internet infrastructure. Both governments routinely exercise control over internet companies at their borders for censorship, surveillance and diversion of global internet traffic. Internet infrastructure, and the Russian military has set up such an infrastructure to control the flow of information in previous conflicts (for example, when Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014). It routinely constrains domestic tech companies that fail to comply with surveillance requirements. made through Chinese state-owned telecommunications companies (such as China Mobile) or enterprises owned by state investment arms (such as Companhia deTelecomunicaesde Macau (CTM)), and they include cables affecting the United States. The companies are under the control of Beijing.
This type of influence could be used in many ways. Beijing could leverage ownership of the state-owned telecommunications cable to spy on cable landing stations. where cables are grown, what parts of the world they connect and how fast is a way to influence the overall physical shape of the internet. to spy. A new, faster Internet infrastructure could also create economic or technological dependence on cable owners. The fact that Beijing is an authoritarian government with a history of manipulating other internet infrastructure makes it a distinct risk to cable security and resiliency.
The second worrying trend is that more and more cable operators are using remote management systems for their cable networks. Cables are increasingly complex today, generating a demand for new software to manage landing stations, cable repair systems and other parts of the infrastructure. Cable owners also find remote systems compelling because they do not need to have on-site personnel. Yet many of these systems have poor security, which exposes cables to new levels of cybersecurity risk. Hackers could break into these internet-connected systems from anywhere in the world and physically manipulate the signals from the cables, causing them to fall, completely compromising the flow of internet data to specific parts of the world. Governments and criminal organizations could also hack these tools to collect traffic data. threat is growing, one can even imagine a threatening actor (state or not) hacking into a cable management system and trying to take the infrastructure hostage.
Third, more and more data is circulating on the Internet every year and this data is increasingly sensitive. As more energy, finance, defense, and healthcare companies embrace cloud computing, data previously held in corporate intranet systems is centralized in cloud data centers. and delivered over the global Internet. These changes increase the incentives for governments to spy on traffic and increase their influence over Internet choke points. They also increase the incentives for threatening non-state groups, such as criminals, to surreptitiously monitor trafficking.
Washington should increase its investments in protecting the security and resiliency of submarine cables. As the White House increasingly focuses on cybersecurity threats to the nation and the global community, including from the Chinese and Russian governments, it should prioritize investing in security and resilience. of the physical infrastructure that underlies Internet communication. worldwide. Failure to do so will only make these systems more vulnerable to snooping and potential disruption that cuts data flows and undermines economic and national security.
The government committee responsible for inspecting foreign state-owned telecommunications for security risks does not have the authorities or resources to do so properly. Congress must give the organization more funding and statutory authority that would allow it to better detect any potential malicious influence on submarine cables. Congress should also consider providing more funding for the Wired Ship Safety Program, a new initiative for government-licensed private vessels to quickly repair damaged national security-related cables once launched.
In the executive branch, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) should invest more resources in interagency cooperation on threats to cable resiliency. The FCC has done a lot of work in this area, but there is still a lot to do, such as working with state and local agencies to incorporate safety best practices into licensing decisions. Internationally, the State Department is expected to conduct a study on integrating cable security and resiliency into cyber capacity building work overseas. In addition, the private sector should set up an information sharing analysis center for the submarine cable industry, as there is currently no single place for these owners to share threat information.
Even if neglected, submarine cables are essential to the global Internet, as we know it. With more concerted investment from the U.S. government working with industry, allies, and partners, they can be much more secure and resilient than they are today.
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