Monday, February 04, 2008

Words beneath the waves Part 3

'Conspiracy theories emerge after internet cables cut', says Simon Lauder of ABC News.

Is information warfare to blame for the damage to underwater internet cables that has interrupted internet service to millions of people in India and Egypt, or is it just a series of accidents?

When two cables in the Mediterranean were severed last week, it was put down to a mishap with a stray anchor. Now a third cable has been cut, this time near Dubai. That, along with new evidence that ships' anchors are not to blame, has sparked theories about more sinister forces that could be at work.

See Words Beneath the Waves and Words Beneath the Waves Part 2 at the Belmont Club for an historical discussion of anti-cable warfare and the use of German U-boats to attack cables.

"It was assumed a ship's anchor severed the cables, but now that is in doubt and the conspiracy theories are coming out. Egypt's Transport Ministry says video surveillance shows no ships were in the area at the time of the incident."

But submarine technology has come a long way since the Great War. ZDNet reported back in 2001 that the NSA may have develped the capability to tap underwater fiber optic cables without any detectable changes to its signal. "The NSA recognized from the start that fiber optics could be a problem. In early 1989, the agency assembled a team of researchers in a small warren of labs at its headquarters in Fort Meade, Md. Other researchers fanned out to corporate research centers to bone up on the new technology. Their mission, according to one former NSA researcher who worked on it, was to find a way to get inside fiber-optic cables and secretly siphon off the data moving through them." More efforts have been reported since.

The defense has also improved with US firms touting tools which will detect even minute changes to the signal which indicate a tap in progress. Of course if a cable were damaged and repaired, it might acquire new "normal" characteristics with the tap itself being part of the new normal signal. Does Iran have the technology to know if a tap has in fact occurred?



16 Comments:

Blogger jj mollo said...

So we don't even have to tap it. All that we have to do is break a few cables, claim loudly that it was all natural causes, which no one will believe, and then sit back while somebody fixes it. Our several adversaries will then be too paranoid to use internet communications for anything really important. So the good stuff will revert to channels that we can monitor. Or shouldn't I be saying this?

2/04/2008 06:36:00 PM  
Blogger El Baboso said...

I think that the hardest part of tapping an undersea cable would be getting the data out. There is so much data flowing through these fiber optic cables that you'd have to run your own cable to the tap site. Then you'd have to get power to the tap device. Neither is impossible.

I suppose ECHELON is losing its value as more and more data passes through fiber optic cables and proportionally less passes through the COMSATs.

One imagines swarms of US, Russian, French, Israeli, Chicom, SKOR, Japanese, etc. subs dredging up fiber optic cables, tapping them, disabling the other guys taps, and occasionally getting embarrassed when they bump into each other, with the incompetent ones accidentally cutting the cables every once in a while.

Mr. President, we must not allow a mineshaft... err, fiber optic cable dredging sub gap!

2/04/2008 06:50:00 PM  
Blogger newscaper said...

I wondered in the prior thread the same thing, that even without any actual tap, the disruption itself might be a psyop to sow doubt.

2/04/2008 06:56:00 PM  
Blogger Tony said...


What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun.

2/04/2008 07:15:00 PM  
Blogger Nomenklatura said...

What about this?

You break the cable, and wait while the site of the break is identified. Then there is a delay until it can be fixed. During that delay you're able to break it somewhere else and install a tap. Nobody knows you're doing it because the line is down anyway.

In due course the original break is fixed, the line appears to be working perfectly, the target knows nothing and your tap is in place, at a location known only to you.

Even if you didn't do this, the target has no way of knowing whether you did or not, without pulling up the entire cable and inspecting it.

2/04/2008 07:22:00 PM  
Blogger RKV said...

Given what I know of our operations on undersea cables in the far east, we don't have to break the cable to tap it. More like some other intelligence service, with less capable technology is out to listen in. We're past that stuff btw.

2/04/2008 07:43:00 PM  
Blogger Marcus Aurelius said...

Sherry Sontag & Christopher Drew wrote a book entitled Blind Man's Bluff and according to the book we were recording data from a tap we had on a Soviet telephone cable in the Sea of Okhotsk. That tap was revealed by Walker & Pelton.

However, one tap we were running in the Barent's Sea was never discovered. There was thought about putting a real time tap but those thoughts never materialized.

We had to send submarines to place & remove the taps.

I don't think anyone would squander a tap on such a line by intentionally breaking the line to put a bug up a person's butt. Blindman's Bluff talks about an absolute treasure trove of intel gathered by tapping the Barent's Sea cable and then blitzing the Soviet Naval bases with our submarine force.

Of course those were traditional copper cables. However, I don't see why similar technological techniques could not be utilized.

Hmmm, maybe I should head back to my alma mater and talk with my optics prof. He was in the USN.

2/04/2008 08:17:00 PM  
Blogger Storm-Rider said...

We may not know for many years if this was done by our government; but I hope it was, for if true, it tells me we are fighting this world war creatively.

In sports it's how well you play the game, in war it's whether you win or lose - it's whether you live or die.

2/04/2008 09:06:00 PM  
Blogger Mad Fiddler said...

Some important messages for our guys behind the lines:
Dee Canddle ees een dee veendau.
Repeat.
Dee-Con delice Indivine Dow.

Dee Chayer eez neck stew dedor.
Repeat.
Thatch Hairs nex two-Deed Ore.

Moon over My-hammy has lost its patent application.
The Legal department is in chaos.
A child's imagination is its strength AND its weakness.
The Nougat gat great heat and expired.

Today's colors: Blue, Teal, Lemon Yellow, Gherkin green, Chartreuse.

The dog has won the lottery.

The pooch piddle defy dough.

Listen for tomorrow's secret messages, and keep your decoding rings ready.

00001101 11000100 00100000 01010000 10100100 10010110 01101011 01010010 10000100 10100111 10010010 01010101 11101101 01000100 10011001 01001010

2/04/2008 09:33:00 PM  
Blogger dla said...

Islamic purists, especially Wahhabbists, view the internet as a gateway to satan's lair. Perhaps we should consider that the cables are being cut to prevent "the great satan" from corrupting the Umma.

2/04/2008 09:33:00 PM  
Blogger Wm_Edwin said...

Here's a network outage chart that claims to profile the exact times Egypt et al dropped off the Net on 1/30/08 (scroll down the page a bit...).

The upshot is interesting. If true, one of the cables off Alexandria (no data on which) was cut at around 0430 UTC, and the next ceased functioning around 0800 UTC, on 1/30/08.

This data is from "Renesys Corp," which apparently specializes in real-time Internet traffic profiling. H/T to Wikipedia
for the steer.

Further reading on the Renesys blog indicates that Iran is not nearly as impacted as other countries. This appears to hold true through yesterday's disruption of the 4th cable.

Finally, here's some interesting reading
on "the shape" of a disaster looks like on networks.

2/04/2008 09:39:00 PM  
Blogger Zenster said...

Marcus Aurelias: Of course those were traditional copper cables. However, I don't see why similar technological techniques could not be utilized.

Copper cables exhibit off-axis electromagnetic emissions that are incredibly easy to tap using inductance-based or field-effect detectors. Fiber optic cables display no such behavior. Read my comments in Part II of this series.

From what I understand, even so much as scraping away the exterior coaxial sheath to "stare into" the light pipe without actually breaking or splicing it can now be detected with ease.

More than anything, I agree with Newscaper's observation that this could sow some hilacious doubts in all those terrorists who migrated from satellite phones over to the Internet.

Also, once again the Island Fortress nature of continental America comes into play in how our own shore-based Internet is much less vulnerable to such physical disruption.

This must have many smaller and less technologically sophisticated countries feeling rather insecure right now. Personally, I like that idea a lot. It's long past tea for these backwater tinpot pisshole thugocracies to start worrying about how and when America will suddenly decide to drop the hammer.

2/05/2008 12:15:00 AM  
Blogger Zenster said...

Does Iran have the technology to know if a tap has in fact occurred?

Only if they had gone to all the trouble of previously characterizing the fiber optic trunks landing on their shores. This is called "baseline" profiling of the initial transmission characteristics and is used to monitor physical degradation of the glass fiber cores due to micro-cracking, overflexing and similar stress related or physical aging problems.

Somehow, I doubt that, in their rush to acquire nuclear weapons, Iran managed to allocate much money for such a time consuming and arcane security project. You can bet the farm that right about now the mullahs wish like Hell they had.

If anything, I can also imagine that the telecom providers who originally laid these cables and festoons are experiencing more than a little pressure not to share whatever baseline performance data they initially gathered. That would be one of the only other sources of data regarding initial transmission profiles.

2/05/2008 12:27:00 AM  
Blogger Elmondohummus said...

Given all the information on radical activities US law enforcement and intelligence agencies have admitted they get online, why the hell would the US want to cut that off?

Let's also consider the fact that service isn't completely cut off, it's merely bandwidth limited by these acts. Egypt, for example, was reduced to 30% of it's normal bandwidth. Low, but still there. Yet, a country noted for cutting off connectivity in order to control dissidents is crying that there's no connectivity, when in fact, there was? Why do I not believe complaints that they lost all connectivity due to this cut? As said, they still had around 30% of their normal bandwidth.

Iran wasn't completely cut off either (wm-edwin's link in the post above):

"Like most countries in the region, the outages in Iran were very significant, but for the most part they did not exceed 20% of their total number of networks. Now 20% is a significant loss, but in the context of an event where countries lost almost all of their connectivity, such a loss did not place Iran into the top 10 of impacted countries."

Sorry, but I'm hard pressed to see this as action against Iran or terrorists in the ME. Why cut yourself off from the very sources of information about their activities that you rely on to know what they're doing? And why do it so half-assed and leave them with some connectivity? That makes zero sense. The explanation will probably turn out to be a lot more mundane than "information warfare".

---------

Oh, Wretchard? Slight correction: Egypt's Transport Ministry says they reviewed sattelite images, not video, to determine there were no ships in the area of the one cable break:

Business Standard.com article

2/05/2008 05:36:00 AM  
Blogger Andrewdb said...

Were these fiber optic cables that were severed, and did that force traffic onto electro-magnetic cables that are easier to tap?

2/05/2008 10:54:00 AM  
Blogger Mad Fiddler said...

I foresee a growing market in Tin Cans and string as an alternative method of long-distance communication.

I will sell blueprints cheap.

2/05/2008 03:07:00 PM  

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