The head of the UK Armed Forces, Admiral Tony Radakin, has warned that increased Russian submarine activity is threatening the global telecommunications system. His statements, while focused on Russia, remind us that the internet is at the mercy of any malicious country with submarines. Submarine cables carrying data are the “real world information system” and any attempt to damage it must be dealt with immediately.

At least 97% of all data on the internet passes through this vast network that connects shores around the world. These cables are installed by special boats and typically cost hundreds of millions of dollars. So far, there are 1.2 million kilometres of cables on the ocean floor, the largest connecting Asia and the Americas (AAG) at over 20 000 kilometres. A standard cable consists of 200 fibre optic cables transmitting 400 Gb of data per second in both directions.

Cable sabotage does not require advanced technology, as their routes are even tracked on navigational charts to prevent boats cutting them off at anchor. Most are owned by companies and organisations and there is no international or even national monitoring body.

A coordinated attack, even if it doesn’t cut all the cables, will transfer the entire volume of data to what’s left, reducing speeds or even disrupting internet access. Satellite Internet can in no way meet the demand. Even if we used every communications satellite in orbit around the Earth, it would only account for 7% of internet communications in the US alone.

“Local Internet” would still exist, but all data center-based services, especially large companies, would collapse. We tend to think of the internet as a source of entertainment and that a malicious action would simply push us out of our comfort zone. But the reality is that the internet trades $10 trillion every day and any disruption would have a direct impact on the global economy, even destroying the banking system.

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