Cable Cuts, Coincidences and Conspiracies

When two submarine telecom cables in the Mediterranean were cut last Wednesday, the outage was attributed to a ship anchor that severed the cables. When a third cable cut in the region was reported on Friday, it raised suspicions that there might be more to the outages than coincidence.

“I’m a security guy, and hence suspicious by nature,” Columbia computer science professor Steve Bellovin wrote on the NANOG (North American Network Operators Group) mailing list. “The old saying comes to mind: ‘once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, but the third time is enemy action.'”

But list members who manage submarine fiber cables say such outages happen fairly often, but usually aren’t noticed due to cable redundancy, which allows system operators to route around outages. “If you know the undersea cable industry, you know that several cables can be down at the same time without malice playing a role,” wrote Rod Beck of Hibernia Atlantic, which operates a trans-Atlantic network. “It happens all the time. Terrorists are clearly looking for more high profile events than disrupting unmanned undersea cable systems. It doesn’t make for great television shots … It is really to get shots of an undersea severed cable.”

But other theories have emerged that might explain the proximity of the Mediterranean cable cuts. Jesse Robbins at O’Reilly Radar wonders if it was related to intelligence gathering. “It’s no secret that governments tap undersea communications lines to install surveillance systems,” Jesse writes. “One theory is that the cuts, reportedly caused by ships anchoring in rough seas, are actually a diversion to cover taps installed by a specially equipped submarine hundreds of miles away.”

Robbins noted that the USS Jimmy Carter is among the submarines equipped with a Multi-Mission Platform (MMP) for use “as an underwater splicing chamber for tapping of undersea fiber optic cables.” No details on whether tin-foil hats are required for these missions.

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About the Author

Rich Miller is the founder and editor at large of Data Center Knowledge, and has been reporting on the data center sector since 2000. He has tracked the growing impact of high-density computing on the power and cooling of data centers, and the resulting push for improved energy efficiency in these facilities.

One Comment

  1. I've updated my original conspiracy post as this issue is gotten attention far beyond the geek community. My feeling is that if submarines were doing this it seems unlikely that it would cause such massive interruptions. The whole point would be to do this covertly and so interruption would be momentary if it were noticed at all. More importantly, a tap is useless when the lines are out-of-service. If the outages are intentional I suspect that there is something else going on."