The internet relies on huge fibre optic cables deep under the ocean that seem vulnerable.

You’re reading this article via the Internet, huh? Obviously, whatever you mostly do on your cellphone is by the power of the internet. Where does your internet even come from? What do you thing would happen if there’s a data blackout? These are questions that really need attention on the internet nowadays. Since our lives now partly depends on the internet. However, the Internet is proudly brought to you by undersea fibre optic cable that are really vulnerable. How vulnerable? Don’t worry about it.

Related media: The Internet: Crash Course Computer Science #29

The Internet Is Vulnerable

In 2019, there was a digital blackout in Tonga which was caused by the severing of the only undersea cable of the country. Widespread panic about how vulnerable the internet went viral. You probably not aware that nearly 100 percent of all digital traffic transoceanic data cables which are laid down on the seabed. They could be as thick as a garden hose and transmit the internet, phone calls, and even cable television between continents at the speed of light — even a single cable can transmit tens of terabits of information per second.

These cables we depend on to send everything from our emails to online banking and our social media updates are deep under the ocean, and remain largely unregulated and undefended. They are laid down by a few tech companies including the American company SubCom and the French cellphone maker Alcatel-Lucent; which are laid along narrow path undersea, with the vastness of the ocean being a protection. But if one of these cables is broken, then digital traffic jams, like the one in Tonga.

Here’s the catch: The fact that the internet runs under the ocean amidst sea creatures and hydrothermal vents sounds a little bit weird. Don’t we have satellites and Wi-Fi transmission? Aren’t we transmitting through the “cloud”? Truth is, the cloud is actually under the ocean. This seems out-of-date, but fibre optic cables are indeed a “state-of-the-art” in terms of global communications technology which uses light to encode information, and remain free from weather interference, making it more faster and cheaper than satellites. 

How Vulnerable Art Thou?

There’s no real technological threat with these cable systems; the big threat is us. Why not! Because they run beneath the ground and ocean, and between cell towers, they sometimes over populate the same spaces as people do. And as a result, they get accidentally broken most of the time — by construction workers, ships dropping anchors, and submarines interfering with cable systems under the ocean. How vulnerable are these cables? Are we at risk of a global digital blackout, whether by accident or cyber terrorism?

Over the years, human activities on sea has been the single most threatening risk to undersea data cables. The International Cable Protection Committee (oh, there’s such a thing) has been working for years to prevent suck damage to these cables, and as a result, cables nowadays have steel armor coverings and are buried deep beneath the seabed around the shores, where human activity is most threatening. But the inaccessible deep ocean serves as a safeguard, and cables only need to be covered with a thin polyethylene sheath

This is not because its much more difficult to sever cables in the deep ocean, its because factors that could damage the cables are less likely to happen. The ocean is so vast and the cables are so narrow in comparison, the probability of running across one is highly unlikely. Sabotage of deep sea cables has rarely been heard of. The German raid of the Fanning Island cable station on the Pacific Ocean during World War I; and quite recently, there was an alleged cable sabotage in Alexandria, Egypt in 2008, halting 70 percent of internet supply.

Protected By Redundancy

In fact, monitoring these cables is not easy. Since the 1800s, cable companies have been at this for centuries. But the ocean is too vast to pose a threat, and cables too long. It would seem preposterous to impose restrictions on ocean traffic anywhere there are critical transmission cables. “Do not sail across this part of the ocean.” “Why?” “Just don’t sail there!” How weird! Cables are even at risk of “ocean-quakes” and undersea landslides. However, there are several hundred cable systems that transmit all transoceanic data around the world.

Here’s the catch: these cables often run through narrow pressure point, just a little disruption could have massive effects. It’s not likely that a country might just rely on several cables — except for the case of Tonga, it took just a single cable to do the damage. If the right cables are disrupted in the right places at the right time, it could disrupt global internet connections for weeks or even months. Here’s the good news: there’s a redundancy built into the system, and there is more capacity than there is information traffic, if there is a break, it’s rerouted along other cables.

This explains why most developed countries are unlikely to get a digital blackout. Since there are many systems available, just a single disruption in a cable wouldn’t cause any noticeable effects. Though a single cable could cause a susceptible disruption, there hasn’t been any measures to prevent such a possibility yet. There is the need to build diverse systems strong enough to withstand any posing threats. Individual companies only look out for there own systems, and little is done to protect the overall. This, we could say, is the vulnerability at hand.

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Written by: Nana Kwadwo, Sat, Jul 20, 2019.


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