Illustration for high-speed internet

Undersea telecoms cables are at high risk of attack, report warns

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A report has found that the undersea cables that form the backbone of the UK’s internet infrastructure are at high risk from attack.

If such an attack managed to disrupt the UK’s worldwide internet connection it would deal a “crippling blow” to the country’s security and economy, the study warned.

The report, written by Conservative MP Rishi Sunak for the Policy Exchange think-tank, said that while 97 per cent of global communications were transmitted through fibre-optic carrying cables they remained “uniquely vulnerable” to sabotage.

Every day, $10tn-worth of financial transactions are transmitted through the cables, which lie deep beneath the ocean. But although they underpin the digital economy, they are inadequately protected and highly vulnerable to attack at sea and on land, from both hostile states and terrorists.

“Whether from terrorist activity or an increasingly bellicose Russian naval presence, the threat of these vulnerabilities being exploited is growing,” the report said.

“A successful attack would deal a crippling blow to Britain’s security and prosperity. The threat is nothing short of existential.

“The result would be to damage commerce and disrupt government-to-government communications, potentially leading to economic turmoil and civil disorder.”

Despite their importance, the report said the cables were often poorly protected, their locations publicly known, and they come ashore at just a few remote landing sites in the UK, making them a tempting target for terrorists.

Their importance has not gone unnoticed; US intelligence officials have found Russian submarines “aggressively operating” near Atlantic cables as part of its broader interest in unconventional methods of warfare.

When Russia annexed Crimea, one of its first moves was to sever the main cable connection to the outside world.

At sea, while the greatest threat was from submarine warfare, a successful attack could be carried out by a fishing trawler equipped with deep-sea grappling hooks.

The report said that the government’s next Strategic Defence and Security Review should specifically address threats to Britain’s security from attacks on the undersea cable infrastructure.

It suggests following the example of Australia and New Zealand and establishing Cable Protection Zones around the highest-value communications corridors

A government spokesman said that any threat to Britain’s infrastructure was taken “extremely seriously”.

“We are continuously working with industry to ensure our subsea cable network is secure and have a variety of tools to monitor potentially hostile maritime activity,” the spokesman said.

In April, Spanish and Brazilian governments launched a project to lay an undersea cable in the Atlantic Ocean to provide fast online and cloud services to the citizens of both countries by 2019 and reduce their reliance on the USA for routing communications. 

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