Tuesday, April 23, 2024

More about our fragile global Internet


Following our post about the deliberate cutting of Internet cables near Sacramento International Airport in California, disrupting operations there, I came across this article dealing with Internet cables globally, and how fragile they are.  It's frightening and disturbing to read about how fragile this infrastructure really is.

The world’s emails, TikToks, classified memos, bank transfers, satellite surveillance, and FaceTime calls travel on cables that are about as thin as a garden hose. There are about 800,000 miles of these skinny tubes crisscrossing the Earth’s oceans, representing nearly 600 different systems, according to the industry tracking organization TeleGeography. The cables are buried near shore, but for the vast majority of their length, they just sit amid the gray ooze and alien creatures of the ocean floor, the hair-thin strands of glass at their center glowing with lasers encoding the world’s data.

If, hypothetically, all these cables were to simultaneously break, modern civilization would cease to function. The financial system would immediately freeze. Currency trading would stop; stock exchanges would close. Banks and governments would be unable to move funds between countries because the Swift and US interbank systems both rely on submarine cables to settle over $10 trillion in transactions each day. In large swaths of the world, people would discover their credit cards no longer worked and ATMs would dispense no cash. As US Federal Reserve staff director Steve Malphrus said at a 2009 cable security conference, “When communications networks go down, the financial services sector does not grind to a halt. It snaps to a halt.”

Corporations would lose the ability to coordinate overseas manufacturing and logistics. Seemingly local institutions would be paralyzed as outsourced accounting, personnel, and customer service departments went dark. Governments, which rely on the same cables as everyone else for the vast majority of their communications, would be largely cut off from their overseas outposts and each other. Satellites would not be able to pick up even half a percent of the traffic. Contemplating the prospect of a mass cable cut to the UK, then-MP Rishi Sunak concluded, “Short of nuclear or biological warfare, it is difficult to think of a threat that could be more justifiably described as existential.”

Fortunately, there is enough redundancy in the world’s cables to make it nearly impossible for a well-connected country to be cut off, but cable breaks do happen. On average, they happen every other day, about 200 times a year. The reason websites continue to load, bank transfers go through, and civilization persists is because of the thousand or so people living aboard 20-some ships stationed around the world, who race to fix each cable as soon as it breaks.

There's much more at the link, including many graphics and illustrations.  I'd say it's essential reading for anyone who relies on the Internet to do their job(s) every day.  Fascinating, revealing, and worrying all at the same time.



Brad Sims said...

Fun trivia, where those cables come ashore are called Metropolitan Area Exchanges.

There are two main ones, MAE east and MAE west.

Yes the pun is intentional.

Magson said...

Some years back, the channel "Real Life Lore" put up a short video about just how much accidental damage squirrels do to internet cables. Deliberate action by humans sounds so much worse.


Steve said...

So we would have to rely on the postal service for all our correspondence?

Rick T said...

And all that resilience was (mostly) designed by white guys. It isn't just having multiple links, you also need routing protocols that can redirect traffic to surviving links when needed (BGP, etc).

Skyler the Weird said...

I heard somewhere that the former fortress of Correigedor in the Philippines was the point where Asia- North/South America Communications met. If true some adversary might be able to cut Communications by attacking the island.

Tom Bridgeland said...

Who pays those 1000 people and keeps the ships running?

Phil said...

Learn to live like it's 1889 before you are forced to.

JNorth said...

Well, at least I just ordered Starlink for my work truck, for most of my use not being able to connect to any internet system outside North America wouldn't really hurt.

For the electrical grids, I'm also glad my state isn't part of any, not even much of one in the state. There is one intertie between the two largest municipal area but that is open most of the time as it was really just made with the intent of helping with load sharing when a major power plant has to be taken off line for maintenance.

Unknown said...

once you get away from shore, those cables become fairly difficult to find. It's not impossible to find them, but it's a matter of 'you know the area, then you drag a hook until it catches something" (and note that regular ship anchors have been known to catch on the undersea cables)

re-routing through satellites would slow things down (a lot) but most places in the world have multiple paths to them (remote Pacific Islands used to be an exception, but the volcano a couple years ago broke the cables and they got starlink dishes to fill in and be backups)

Anonymous said...

It's frightening and disturbing to read about how fragile this infrastructure really is.

In reality all infrastructure in North America is fragile. All it would take is to attack a few well selected nodes and the whole grid could collapse. All it took was a branch falling on a power line in Ohio in a windstorm to bring down the grid in Ohio and most of Ontario in 2003. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how a few well placed attacks across the continent would bring it all down. A rogue nation setting off A nuke to cause an EMP is the stuff of a good fiction writer. But the same result can be done with cruder methods.