Underwater vulnerability

“I have just sent you an email. Check it and let me know what you think. I’ll stay online”, is a common part of conversation across continents these days.

Usually, in a matter of seconds the recipient is able to read that email. I often find myself saying, “It’s been ten minutes, since I sent that email! You still haven’t received it?” to someone in San Francisco.

We expect things to work. And work fast!

Spatial interaction

The internet connects most places in the world today. With real-time audio-visual technologies (e.g.: Skype, Google Hangout, iChat, and so on), time and distance have shrunk remarkably. When I teach geography to students on Skype, the communication is usually instantaneous though physically they may be far from me.

The speed with which we are able to communicate, makes the distance almost irrelevant … when the networks are working properly. Technology mitigates geography! This facilitates greater spatial interaction (how places interact with each other), a concept I have introduced in an earlier article.

Thanks to the internet, international bank transactions can occur within a matter of seconds or minutes as opposed to the very complex and stressful method a paper transaction would take.

I remember a time when we used to have to wait for hours or more to make an international call. You had to call the international operator and “book” an international call. Most of us didn’t have a telephone. So, we used to go to someone’s house to do this. This meant we had to plonk ourselves down at their house until the operator called back, ready to connect our call.

Now, I get on Skype and pay a pittance to chat with most of my contacts worldwide!

Snakes

How are these connections achieved?

We are able to communicate so easily with so many places in the world thanks to underwater cables that connect places. These cables were first laid to connect the continents with telegraphy. Most of you probably have not seen a telegram! It was phased out in India a few years ago.

Similarly cables connected telephone communications.

Now cables provide us with the ability to connect on the internet and, that too, at high speeds. The communication is almost instantaneous.

Here is a diagram of the internal structure of the cables:

Structure of submarine communications cable that brings us the internet. (Source: Wikimedia. https://goo.gl/ASEouY Accessed: 1 Jan. 2018)

 

Check out the very interesting interactive map of the internet cables snaking around the world and connecting us. (Click on the image to open the map; it will open in a new tab/window.)

 

Submarine Cable Map

 

Geography of Threats

Among the many uses of the internet, international security is crucial. Internet communication is key not only to people’s interactions but also for very large financial transactions, diplomacy, military operations and strategy, espionage, and so many others.

Communication is vital. The kind of instant communication that the internet provides is especially crucial for military and diplomatic coordination among allied countries. It is also vital for sharing of intelligence among countries (espionage secrets, latest goings on in allied or rival countries, the movement of international criminal commodities such as narcotics, etc.).

The underwater cables in the open seas are in “international waters” – no one controls these areas; they are areas of a lot of conflict. Two kinds of enemies pose serious threat to these cables:

  1. State actors – countries which use their military and other might to interfere with these cables are the first kind of threat.
  2. Non-state actors – terrorist organizations, often secretly funded and supported by different governments, could physically threaten the cables.

There are at least two kinds of threats:

  1. Tapping into these cables and “listening in” on the “conversations” going on. This is happening routinely, of course. Every single message or interaction that you have on the internet is being recorded and tracked somewhere and is never lost. This is part of the espionage angle.
  2. Cutting of the cables in the deep seas using stealth submarines (submarines that cannot be detected) or other means.

All threats target international military, intelligence, financial, and other forms of security.

The Big Bear

Russia has often been portrayed as a big bear – aggressive, strong, and violent. This was true during the decades when the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) existed also. The western countries used this image in their anti-USSR propaganda to fight the USSR.

Some people still see Russia, the biggest remnant of the USSR, as a bear. In recent times, Russia and NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization – an alliance of several western European countries and USA) have been having bad relations. Each sees the other as a threat to peace, safety, and security in Europe (and elsewhere).

Russia is accused of interfering in the elections of several countries using internet platforms such as FaceBook and Twitter. More and more evidence is being presented to prove this. For example, the national elections in the USA in 2016 are said to have been tampered by Russia in this way. This is a huge deal!

Countries have commonly interfered in the internal affairs of other countries for centuries. The internet is making this easier and more insidious.

In the past week or so, news stories have emerged claiming that Russian naval vessels (ships and submarines) are loitering around the areas where international cables are located. (See here, here, and here; links open in new tab/window.)  Countries such as the UK have expressed concern over this development because any cutting of cables connecting Europe to the USA (and North America in general) could have extremely dangerous consequences for NATO’s military capabilities. This could make NATO (especially western European countries) vulnerable to Russian military (and other) threats.

Things you can do:

  1. Visit the internet cable map at https://goo.gl/JRvs2b and examine the connections worldwide.
  2. What geographic observations can you make on this map? E.g.: are some places better connected than others? Why or why not?
  3. What are some of the military consequences that India could face if there is any cutting of any of these cables? (This has happened before; most recently about a year or so ago)
  4. What geographic questions occur to you when you look at this map?
  5. Find out about the composition of the cables.

A version of this article appeared in the Deccan Herald Student Edition in January 2018

Featured image: Part of the world submarine cable map. (Courtesy: Telegeography; https://goo.gl/JRvs2b) [Accessed 1 January 2018]