Submarine cables: Russia and China are fighting for control of the Internet routes on the seabed

The internet is the global information highway where all matters gravitate. As more people need this means of communication, more cables are being laid across the ocean floor. This phenomenon appears to be catching the attention of the Beijing and Moscow governments.

These cables are the backbone for internet traffic, but they are also a touchy subject in terms of security.

Submarine cables are the backbone of the internet

We follow the exponential growth of this type of infrastructure. Undersea cables link continents, cross seas to bring a signal to more and more users. If in 2015 only 9 submarine cables were laid, in 2020 the number more than tripled, 28 cables were laid to the bottom of the sea.

A huge growth that shows how we depend more and more on these infrastructures.

Explains a report by the Atlantic Council entity.

There are increasing efforts to buy or influence the companies that own these cables, according to the report. These cables are key to savings. For example, the submarine cables Equiano and EllaLink “have a potential long-term economic impact of up to 500 million euros more” per year on the Portuguese economy.

These structures are a backbone for Internet traffic and also a delicate security point.

see the interactive map on: Submarine Cable Map

Governments want to control these underwater infrastructure

According to the report, 59% of submarine cables are in the hands of private companies, while “only” 20% of these cables are state-owned or managed by the governments of different countries. And it is precisely this percentage that may change in the coming years, as the interest in the powers of control and management of these cables is growing.

The private companies that manage these cables can add “backdoors” or allow certain spy agencies to monitor the traffic that passes through these undersea cables. A fear that is leading different countries to focus on these cables as part of their cybersecurity strategy, notes the Atlantic Council.

Google is the privately held technology company that has powered most of the undersea cables in recent years. However, we can also find Chinese companies like China Mobile, China Telecom, China Unicom, or Huawei Marine.

According to the report, these Chinese companies, this year alone, have already started 44 submarine cable projects. Some of them are more ambitious as part of the China Belt and Road Initiative, and others with a more local focus, such as improving the network through Hong Kong.

On the Russian side, the state company Rostelecom activated cables to connect the Russian outlying islands to the mainland and Europe.

It’s easy to think of the Internet at an abstract level because of the cloud and cyberspace. But it still depends on routers and cables and this impacts how data travels around the world. This is important because if you have more data traveling through your cables or across your country, you have more spying opportunities.

Justin Sherman, the author of the report, concluded.

Espionage on submarine cables is nothing new

The focus on underwater espionage opportunities is not theoretical. The United States and the United Kingdom, among others, have a long history of intercepting submarine cables for information. In the 1970s, the National Security Agency launched Operation Ivy Bells, which involved the use of attack submarines and divers to drop waterproof recording devices onto submarine cables near major Soviet naval bases in the Kuril Islands.

Every two weeks, divers returned to the cables and retrieved the recording devices and intelligence they captured. The operation went on for years until an NSA employee named Ronald Penton told the KGB about the program. He was arrested in 1985 and served 30 years in prison before being released in 2015.

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