Tapping Undersea Cables

Good article on the longstanding practice of secretly tapping undersea cables.

This is news right now because of a new Snowden document.

Posted on July 17, 2013 at 12:03 PM • 14 Comments

Comments

ramriotJuly 17, 2013 2:01 PM

The key point of the article as I read it is that tapping undersea cables is much easier when they are not under-water ?!

Also the tapping technologies discussed in the article are not compatible with modern single mode fibres as the losses induced by jointing or the risks of bend fracture once a fibre is pared down to within its

Another point is that the best place to tap to avoid detection due to loss detection at the ends is the worst place to tap due to it being mid-ocean.

My judgement is that this is not what is happening on newer cables post 1970s, these are best dealt with at a point close to the information target, be it google facebook etc. Therefore the people who should be being asked if they are in collusion are the Level 1,2 ISP carriers whom these companies buy their connectivity off.

ramriotJuly 17, 2013 2:03 PM

For some reason the end of paragraph two was trucated, should read:-

pared down to within its 125 micron diameter cladding.

SimonJuly 17, 2013 2:55 PM

@ramriot - once I posted a comment but later I saw it had been merged with someone else's and alternated sentences from both. I couldn't even tell for sure who the other commenter was. Someone must have bumped the cable.

Brendan KidwellJuly 17, 2013 3:01 PM

The article lost me when it gave a quantity with the unit "Libraries of Congress". Seriously, are we still doing that? How many bits is that anyway?

mooJuly 17, 2013 5:06 PM

Anyone remember a few years ago, a time period when there were several news articles about various undersea Internet backbone cables that were mysteriously severed and had to be repaired? Maybe around 2008 or so?

Explanations such as ships dropping anchor in the middle of nowhere and dragging it across the cable were offered. I wonder how many of those cable-cut incidents were espionage-related, and how many of those news articles were planted propaganda pieces.

Carl 'SAI' MitchellJuly 17, 2013 5:40 PM

On a forum I visit there's a guy who works on a cable-laying barge and takes good pictures. He also explains a good bit about how laying such cables works. If they can pull the cable up from the seafloor they can open it up, tap it, and fix the opened section. I don't know how easy it would be to do it without service interruption, probably quite hard, but the US military has the budget, the incentive, and the time to develop the techniques to do so reliably.

More pictures of a cable-laying barge setup than you ever wanted to see. And it can do repairs on existing cables. That barge apparently costs about a million dollars a day to operate, so installing a cable tap would likely be more than that.

FrankJuly 17, 2013 5:41 PM

moo • July 17, 2013 5:06 PM
Anyone remember a few years ago, a time period when there were several news articles about various undersea Internet backbone cables that were mysteriously severed and had to be repaired? Maybe around 2008 or so?

Yeah, though thought it was espionage related at the time. This article reminded me of that. I still think it was probably espionage related.

Seemed kind of obvious.

One of the most disturbing disclosures which has come out in the wake of Snowden was that US telecoms have given US Intel agencies access to their offshore facilities for the purposes of evading national laws.

I have not seen that reported much since then. Nor have I seen many news articles talking about Hoover. Even the recent movie did not go into his wiretapping and blackmail excesses.

One issue that I have also not seen brought up is the old system of information exchange where the Brits would spy on US Citizens, and the US would spy on British Citizens. This way they could spy on anyone they want.

While the US telecom situation is from an anonymous source, and not vetted, these other situations have deep importance on all of these issues.

And they are very well documented.

Dirk PraetJuly 17, 2013 6:55 PM

@ moo

Anyone remember a few years ago, a time period when there were several news articles about various undersea Internet backbone cables that were mysteriously severed and had to be repaired?

There was an incident in the Mediterranean in (I believe) December 2008 in which FLAG Europe-Asia and SeaMeWe-4 were damaged. Around the same time, a third one off the Persian Gulf emirate of Dubai was severed. ( http://edition.cnn.com/2008/WORLD/meast/02/01/internet.outage/index.html ) . In January 2013, there was another report of "3 scuba divers" being caught by the Egyptian navy trying to cut a cable off the coast of Alexandria.

I didn't think too much of it at the time, but Snowden's revelations now obviously cast an entirely different light on these events. Yet another example of tinfoil hats (probably) being vindicated.

AndyJuly 17, 2013 11:23 PM

A very good read regarding the general business of underwater cable laying is Neal Stephenson's piece "Mother Earth, Mother Board" which Google will find easily on wired.com

Obviously many of the crew are former military (divers etc.) so it makes you wonder how hard it would be to get someone into those crews to bring in manipulated equipment. But with the data volume these days most likely landfall stations is where the eavesdropping happens.

wumpusJuly 18, 2013 10:52 AM

Some thoughts:
Cables going into/outof the US have always been fair game for the NSA. I can only assume that they have a tap at the US endpoint for all such connections. I'd also assume that other nations do similar things.

Tapping undersea cables undersea requires running an additional fiber line away from the original cable. I assume that this isn't that big a deal since divers or anything else for that matter can't operate that far from shore anyway. At that point you either need to do all analysis on site at your fiber termination (on a shore insufficiently friendly to allow you to tap the termination). You either have to do the analysis there or practically have your own shadow network mirroring the entire world's undersea fiber heading back to your home base.

I think this says a lot about just how much every intelligence agency (well all those believed to be tapping fiber that don't connect to their shores) care about metadata.

wumpusJuly 18, 2013 10:58 AM

@moo
That's more likely economic competition. There were jokes back ~1999 when fiber was being laid like mad in the US that if you were lost just bury a line of fiber. Ask the backhoe operator who comes by to cut the line where you are...

I suppose if you didn't have a good means of tapping a line without breaking it that would work. I would expect that plenty of times your tap would get removed in the repair, so expect to have to do it a few times. A spontaneous repair would be a giveaway that it was espionage and not economics behind the cut.

VinzentJuly 19, 2013 2:18 AM

Tapping optic fibre cables? So, PRISM actually isn't just some randomly assigned codename. ;)

Clive RobinsonJuly 19, 2013 7:02 AM

@ Moo,

With regards ships dropping anchor in odd places...

There are a number of reasons for this happening one of which is "operational cost reduction".

But it also happens a lot for illegal activites such as "tank wash out".

One of the reasons the cables and ships co-locate is the sea bed. That is for cable laying you want a mainly slowly shelving sea bed that does not have rock outcrops etc. Such sea bed is also ideal for anchoring.

As for tank wash out in open seas by bulk carriers, this is in effect baned world wide. But the alternative in port is expensive, not just due to the polution clean up aspect but tie up time and costs, thus the incentive for some operators is immense.

Which is the same reasoning "fly tippers" use, that is the chances of getting caught is very low and usually proportionat to the nations authorities expenditure on marine survalence. But there are exceptions for instance in the US there are rules and regulations that limit fines and punishments for "corperrates" as opposed to individuals...

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