An article published yesterday (25 October 2015) has severely changed the way I think about the (near) future of internet. According to New York Times Russian submarines are reported near crucial communications cables in the Atlantic. The possibility of intersection should be taken in account, NYT states, and the consequences will be enormous.
99% of the international internet traffic goes undersea, transported in cables no more than 7 cm thick. During the political tumult in Egypt on multiple occasions cables have been cut. This had effect on 70% of the communication between Europe, Asia and Africa. One of the disruptions was caused by scuba divers. Users as far as India and Pakistan were completely shut of the net.
When undersea cables are cut data will alter its way of reaching its goal. A complete shutdown of all Trans-Atlantic connections is therefore hard to establish, a severe reduction in speed with far-reaching consequences is possible, and as it now seems, to be expected.
There are about ten known internet cables in place directly connecting Europe and the USA. The location of the landing spots is no secret, and even mapped out in interactive maps like this one. The detection of submarines on the other hand is a hard job still done by targeted sonar pings. If Russia would really plan to cut all submarine internet cables it could take its time to do so.
The title of this blog suggests that Russia will indeed cut the cables, and next I will illustrate why this is likely to happen. The Russian people do hardly use American services but rely more on Russian services. If Russia decides to cut the cables it will hardly have any affect for its people. It does make it more likely for European users to turn to for instance search-engine Yandex, when the loading of Google takes up several minutes.
Second, Russia is probably behind most of the cyber-infiltration, or hacks, reported in the media; a topic I have written several blogs about (Dutch). If indeed Putin wants to seriously engage in cyberspace, the cutting of cables will have more impact than all DDoS attacks in the history of internet combined.
Third, the MAD-rule does not apply on the cutting of Trans-Atlantic cables. In the Cold War the Sovjet-Union and the US were kept from using the atomic bomb because Mutual Assured Destruction was ensured: if the Sovjet-Union would drop the bomb it could be sure the second one would lay Moscow in ashes. As of right now, the US has no similar card in hands. The Runet doesn’t run over ocean soil. The US cannot respond in an equal matter.
Fourth, following from these statements there can hardly be a demand that would be worth more to the Russian economy and political position than the cutting of cables. Threatening with doing it in order to put diplomatic pressure on Washington and Brussels won’t meet up with the benefit of actually doing it.
Fifth, Russia has a record of using the tactic of scorched earth to beat its enemies, from Napoleon onwards.
The cutting of cables is to be expected and will have similar short-term and long-term effects as the oil crisis in 1973. The only thing Putin needs is a justification for the Russian people and for the international community to take this step. Since Putin seems to have not much trouble in finding justification for his military expansion it should not take him too long.