Friday, February 01, 2008

Words beneath the waves Part 2

Iran has lost Internet connectivity as another undersea cable is cut. (Hat tip: Glenn Reynolds) A few days ago Egypt and much of the Middle East lost comms as two cables were cut by what was thought to be a poorly anchored ship, an incident analyzed in detail in Words beneath the waves.

It's a little appreciated fact that the world is critically dependent on undersea cables. The information flows of the world go largely through high capacity fiber optic routes under the seas. These cables are also easily interdicted. The technology to harm them is a century old. During the First World War British cable ships pulled up all of Germany's cables. The German navy retaliated by using U-boats with special grapples to yank out British cables in the shallows near the cable landings. The principle difficulty lay in keeping station over a definite spot.

Cable outages happen routinely, due to shifts in the ocean floor, abrasion on corals or anchoring accidents. But there is normally enough spare capacity in the world cable system to re-route comms while the cable repair ships fix the breaks. Just how dependent the world ultimately is on this fleet of ships is often unrealized.

In a real wartime situation, the power with a command of the seas can fix their breaks. The British made good the damage the German U-boats inflicted on their cables. But the Germans, because they could not send cable repair ships to mend their comms, could not. By the end of the war the British had actually stolen the entire German cabling system and redeployed it.

It's highly likely that the three outages are simply due to a run of bad luck. But they are reminder of how vulnerable the arteries of the information economy are.

(Note: the link to the Internet monitoring site for Iran will reflect changes as the cable is repaired. At the time of this posting Iran's packet loss is 100 percent.)


Blogger newscaper said...

Curiouser and curioser...

Sounds like a great way to prep things for *some* sort of monkey business, doesn't it?

2/01/2008 06:06:00 PM  
Blogger newscaper said...

I' should add, "... one can hope."

But you're probably right... accidental.

2/01/2008 06:08:00 PM  
Blogger Zenster said...

It's highly likely that the three outages are simply due to a run of bad luck.

And your point is?

Our worst enemy is cut off from the outside world. Go figure.

To quote Ronald Reagan: (Whom I met in person)

"We begin bombing in five minutes."

2/01/2008 08:19:00 PM  
Blogger buck smith said...

You know the funny thing about it is, the leaders of Iran might observe this and think - "Shoot, man we gotta get more lines of connectivity to this here internet." But the more they do that the weaker their position will become. Our technology evolves so fast it makes their heads explode.

2/01/2008 08:32:00 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

If a totalitarian country wanted to seriously crack down on those annoying dissidents, wouldn't they want to cut the country off from the outside world?

2/01/2008 09:14:00 PM  
Blogger Joshua said...

Jeff: If a totalitarian country wanted to seriously crack down on those annoying dissidents, wouldn't they want to cut the country off from the outside world?

I was thinking the same thing myself. Could I'madinerjacket and company themselves have had a hand in this? (AFAIK they haven't even bothered to blame The Great Satan(TM) for the cable loss, something you'd think would be de rigeur for them if it was anything other than an intentional act on Tehran's part.)

2/01/2008 10:00:00 PM  
Blogger Wretchard said...

Losing 100% of your comms means more than cutting off access to the pesky Internet rebels in your midst. It means losing the ability to place business orders, do bank transactions, etc. It means you have to reroute your comms through to more expensive and possibly less secure routes. The oldest trick in the book is to cut enemy comms only to leave them to use the lines you control.

Now none of this might be happening. Cables get cut all the time from natural mishap and normal misadventure. It could be accidental and then again it might not. But then again, how would one know?

2/02/2008 12:34:00 AM  
Blogger Elijah said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

2/02/2008 03:29:00 AM  
Blogger hdgreene said...

During the Reagan years the navy tapped into a Soviet Military communication cable that went between to secure bases in their territorial waters. So the messages between were not coded. Often the same messages were broadcast to other bases coded so that could give an in to all the day's traffic.

I believe it was discovered by the Soviets as a result of a mishap during a service call.

2/02/2008 04:42:00 AM  
Blogger James Kielland said...


That was Operation Ivy Bell, if I remember correctly. And it goes back to the early 1970s, it was only compromised in the mid 80s. Wikipedia has more:

In October of 1971, the United States sent the purpose-modified submarine USS Halibut deep into Soviet territory in the Sea of Okhotsk. Its mission was to find the undersea telephone cable that connected the Soviet submarine base at Petropavlovsk on the peninsula of Kamchatka to the Soviet Pacific Fleet headquarters on the mainland at Vladivostok. The mission was a success, and the divers eavesdropped on the wire with an instrument that measured electromagnetic emanations. What they heard was easily understandable Russian conversations with no encryption. The following year, Halibut installed a permanent tap on the line to record the conversations, with a plan to return in about a month to retrieve the records. Eventually more taps were installed on Soviet lines in other parts of the world—the more advanced instruments could store a year's worth of data. The recording device was built by AT&T's Bell Laboratories, and was powered by a tiny nuclear generator.

There is also more information here.

2/02/2008 06:07:00 AM  
Blogger Boghie said...

Oh my...

And who will fix the cable break?

Maybe someone with an interest in ensuring all traffic through the fiber is optimally passing through. To make certain they might place a few instruments - or whatever - in the path while they splice it.

Me thinks Iran is not performing the repair. Maybe a US or European company, eh. Maybe Israeli. Iran better check things out with their submarine fleet, eh.

Those pesky infidels.

2/02/2008 07:14:00 AM  
Blogger Jonathan Reed Winkler said...

Ivy Bells was the Cold War-era tapping operation, but the knowledge and experience of how to do it dates back to World War I when the United States developed the means. The U.S. learned a great deal in that war about these things. Both the British and Germans had a very healthy appreciation of the strategic significance of international cable and radio communications, to the initial detriment of the U.S.

2/02/2008 07:24:00 AM  
Blogger Boghie said...

I think 'Air America' might be restructuring itself to support its core business.

Companies do it all the time when they find that they moved into areas where they have little business expertise.

So with their radio enterprise failing it appears that Air America is once again rebuilding its underwater communications cable repair business – as well as reinvigorating an airline company in Vietnam.

They will be the lowest bidder.

And, even if they lose the contract they can still play a role as a sub-contractor!

2/02/2008 07:33:00 AM  
Blogger Wretchard said...

I'm bound to say that nobody knows more about these issues than one of the commenters on this thread.

There's a book that will soon be out: Nexus, Strategic Communications and American security in World War I by Jonathan Reed Winkler from Harvard University Press that promises to be a real landmark on this subject.

2/02/2008 08:13:00 AM  
Blogger NahnCee said...

Initally I'm thinking to myself "Well, yeah. Dubya is making a point to get their attention over this headline from ArabNews in Saudi Arabia -- OPEC Rejects US Demand for More Oil."

But then, because I like a conspiracy theory just like everyone else does, I start thinking to myself, "who would have the capability to determine which cable needs to be sliced and the equipment to get down there and do it?"

Pretty short list. Russia could. China must have the capability although I don't recall having read too much about Chinese submarines. France used to have, but I'm not so sure if they could any more. That company in Denmark or Holland that helped the Russians with their sunken submarine -- they'd have the equipment, but I would they have the expertise to be able to pinpoint the cable?

So, what if it's Russia cutting underwater cables? To cut off OPEC from the rest of the world to make Russian oil more valuable? Or China, to teach the Arabs a little lesson in humility.

If Rove or Kissinger were still affiliated with the White House I could see and approve of the sneaky elegance of such a plan. But given Dubya's love of Arabs and recent tendency to allow Condoleeze Rice to conduct our foreign policy as if it were a tea party, I'm just not sure that the White House currently has the cojones to do something like this.

2/02/2008 10:12:00 AM  
Blogger j willie said...

I'm fairly certain that fiber optic cables cannot be "tapped". To do so would require opto-electronic conversion (from photonic to electronic), which would require a physical interconnection, which would then reveal the "tapping". That's also why NSA wiretapping CAN be accopmplished in the ATT switching facilities, at which point the photons have temporarily been converted to electrons in order for the routers to read the packet headers and know where to forward them. If local, they would then probably traverse a digital transport facility. If transoceanic (and in some cases trancontinentally), they would most lilkely be reconverted to photons for transport via fiber. Of course, all of what i just stated is a very simplified description of a very complex set of interfaces.

2/02/2008 02:00:00 PM  
Blogger geoffb said...

It might be possible to tap at the repeaters which cleanup and boost the signal but I'm not sure.

Thanks for the heads up on the book Wretchard.

2/02/2008 04:48:00 PM  
Blogger Mad Fiddler said...

In the past I have expressed the hope that in some home or government office or even a secret study carrel in some Maddrassah, some Islamic person who is not fully under the spell of the Jihadists might be furtively... bravely... viewing Western blogs like this one. And possibly beginning to see that his own point of view could be re-thought.

These days, I think I'm more WARY, and concerned that some Islamic Jihadist has already beheaded that furtive skeptic, and is now daily examining Western blogs to see just precisely how we are planning to attack the bastards.

The revelations by NYT and other treasonous and stupid journalists of specific U.S. strategies alerted our adversaries to weaknesses and vulnerabilities in their own activities. In response, they altered their behavior to reduce those vulnerabilities.

It may seem paranoid, but in discussing the implications and technical aspects of the recent ruptures in submarine cables, we may very well inadvertently be aiding our adversaries with conjectures about solutions and tricks we might be able to do.

I'm just sayin'...

Because I've thought of a few ways this could be played out to our advantage.

If iggerant ***I*** can come up with a few ideas, I'm certain some of you other jamokes can, too.

2/02/2008 07:53:00 PM  
Blogger j willie said...

I stand corrected -

2/02/2008 10:28:00 PM  
Blogger newscaper said...

I don't believe anyone specifically pointed this out but, conspiracy-wise, rather than cutting comms and causing a disruption being the point -- whether done by us or by *them*, and "accident" would provide perfect cover for cutting the lines while installing a tap.

At one of the backbones or major trunklines is the only place where the packets from the different subnets converge - all the better for easy "sniffing".

I wish our guys were that good.

2/03/2008 08:32:00 AM  
Blogger Zenster said...

J Willie: I'm fairly certain that fiber optic cables cannot be "tapped". To do so would require opto-electronic conversion (from photonic to electronic), which would require a physical interconnection, which would then reveal the "tapping".

Any cable—be it fiber or copper—can be "tapped". The question is whether sufficient security measures are in place to detect the action. As the Blackhat article notes:


Provide continuous, real-time, protocol independent, physical layer monitoring of the fiber network connection.

A continuously monitored length of fiber will instantly reveal any attempt to tap into it. Off-axis signal strength in an optical fiber is so low that only a tap directly inserted into the coaxial core can pick up the desired information. Any such break will automatically register as a significant data dropout.

Individual lengths of a given fiber network can be characterized using an OTDR (Optical Time Domain Reflectometer). This instrument provides extremely precise parameters that characterize the fiber's performance. Inserting a tap will intrinsically alter those parameters.

Such methods do require that each significant portion of a fiber network be individually charaterized. Additionally, the insertion of multiple layers of repeaters, junctions, take-offs and other gear degrades security correspondingly.

Still, continuous monitoring of the data stream will detect important interruptions which might represent an attempt to tap the fiber. Please note how right after the aforementioned defense issue comes this bullet:

Identify optical anomalies by analyzing the optic carrier.

OTDR characterization is probably the most detailed method of doing so and can usually detect even the most sophisticated attacks. Even if a fiber is taken off-line for a period of time—such as the ones in this article—once reactivated, it can again be characterized using OTDR to determine if its physical length has been altered. Inserting a tap will do this by changing the number of optical surfaces along the signal path and thus the propagation time of light waves within the fiber.

2/03/2008 09:11:00 AM  
Blogger NahnCee said...

I don't believe anyone specifically pointed this out but, conspiracy-wise, rather than cutting comms and causing a disruption being the point -- whether done by us or by *them*, and "accident" would provide perfect cover for cutting the lines while installing a tap.

Why would anyone stir up the hullabaloo of cutting a whole entire hysterical conspiracy-minded portion of the globe off the internet overtly when they've done it covertly before with submarines and divers, with no one the wiser?

This does not compute. I do think it's a man-done thing, I don't think it's a freak of nature, I don't think anyone is tapping anyone's secret private terrorist stuff, and I do think a political message is being sent.

The message would be, "Wake up and grow up before it's too late." Arabs are *very* proud of their oil wealth, arrogant even -- but what will they do if their petro-dollars are over here and they are stuck over there?

Or even if their petro-dollars are stashed in a stable Arab country like Dubai or Lebanon used to be, and they are stuck in a backwards country that is dependent upon outside help for EVERYthing including cleaning up their sewage. So if they're in Riyadh and their money is in Lebanon, will bankers release it via text message only?

2/03/2008 10:47:00 AM  
Blogger Mad Fiddler said...


just like I said.

Now all our secret plans are ruint.

There will probably be Jihadis and unwilling Scuba Martyr brigades stationed at intervals all along the damn cables.


2/03/2008 08:29:00 PM  
Blogger j willie said...

Zenster - Any cable—be it fiber or copper—can be "tapped".

That's why my second post started with, "I stand corrected".


If you drop the words "optical fiber eavesdropping" in your Google search box, you'll find a full spectrum of choices for tapping fiber cables (from about $500 to tap a cable in a wiring closet in your building to $3.5 Billion for the USS Jimmy Carter, a Seawolf class sub with a special 45 foot long compartment into which undersea cables can be pulled for technicians to "work on". It's all out there for anyone that wants to read it. The Jihadis too stupid to use Google are gonna get caught anyway; the smart ones have probably long known fiber can be tapped.

2/03/2008 09:47:00 PM  
Blogger newscaper said...


I was just speculating out loud. To avoid a disruption of traffic, completely, I'm pretty sure an optical fiber has to be cut to insert your pickup, whereas with copper wire, its easy enough to peel back the insulation to expose the conductor and rig a bypass while you work on the main line(s).

That said, you're right, you would think even the disruption could be made fairly brief.

OTOH, perhaps the disruption itself is meant to be the signal to regimes, psyops-wise?

2/04/2008 07:48:00 AM  
Blogger Mad Fiddler said...

Well, Okay, J Willie... I try to be silly and it just doesn't come across.

Anyhow, the down time when a submarine cable is cut is a perfect moment for some other work to be done. Sure would justify the three and a half billion dollars.

Anyway, why we would name a capital vessel after Mr. Peanut is beyond me. What's next? The aircraft carrier USNS Can't-keep-my-Weenie-Holstered?

I wonder if the Iranian submarines have any capabilities for working with submarine cables.

Meanwhile, I really doubt that many Jihadists are bothering to read this particular blog. They're too busy pounding their foreheads against the paving stones to achieve the callus they think of as a mark of the devout. No wonder their cognitive processes are so screwed up. They're all running around with continually re-aggravated concussions.

2/04/2008 01:57:00 PM  
Blogger Mad Fiddler said...

I guess newscaper fingered the essential ploy in the first comment, anyhow.

2/04/2008 01:58:00 PM  
Blogger Alexander said...

A fourth cable has been cut. An Israeli military officer recommends citizens build bomb shelters. The USN is moving an anti-missile ship into port at Haifa. Hmmm....let's see what else comes out in the next week?

2/04/2008 05:19:00 PM  

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