Thought exercises on war and the internet

Late last October David Sanger and Eric Schmitt wrote an interesting story in the New York Times outlining US concerns about Russian navy activity near the world’s undersea cables. They said:

Russian submarines and spy ships are aggressively operating near the vital undersea cables that carry almost all global Internet communications, raising concerns among some American military and intelligence officials that the Russians might be planning to attack those lines in times of tension or conflict.

The issue goes beyond old worries during the Cold War that the Russians would tap into the cables — a task American intelligence agencies also mastered decades ago. The alarm today is deeper: The ultimate Russian hack on the United States could involve severing the fiber-optic cables at some of their hardest-to-access locations to halt the instant communications on which the West’s governments, economies and citizens have grown dependent.

You got the sense from the story that intelligence officials wanted to get the story out:

In private, however, commanders and intelligence officials are far more direct. They report that from the North Sea to Northeast Asia and even in waters closer to American shores, they are monitoring significantly increased Russian activity along the known routes of the cables, which carry the lifeblood of global electronic communications and commerce.

Let’s think about this for a minute. If a war were to take place between NATO and, say, Russia, what would be some likely Russian strategies? Clearly US officials are expressing concern here about undersea cables, which carry the bulk of internet traffic globally – most specifically between the US and Europe.

In such a scenario it would make sense for Russia not simply to cut these cables, but instead to mine them – and mine them in multiple locations. Indeed you could argue it would make sense to mine them in advance of any possible conflict, but merely as a contingency. So maybe they already are? And it might be also logical to conclude that NATO might do the same, though that seems a little less likely.

If an adversary could cut most or all commercial undersea cables simultaneously (nevermind the secret military ones) it would have a hugely destabilising affect on Western economies. Communications during or in the leadup to conflict are obviously critical, but since the end of the Cold War large portions of global commerce also rely on these undersea cables – which by their nature are vulnerable. Here’s some stuff from McKinsey, emphasis mine:

New McKinsey research into the Internet economies of the G-8 nations as well as Brazil, China, India, South Korea, and Sweden finds that the web accounts for a significant and growing portion of global GDP. Indeed, if measured as a sector, Internet-related consumption and expenditure is now bigger than agriculture or energy. On average, the Internet contributes 3.4 percent to GDP in the 13 countries covered by the research—an amount the size of Spain or Canada in terms of GDP, and growing at a faster rate than that of Brazil.

Besides the affect on GDP, there’s also the affect on trading and international markets.

And don’t forget yourself: if those undersea cables were cut tomorrow, your reliance on cloud-based services would immediately become a liability. No more Google Drive, Gmail, Netflix, Dropbox, Amazon, or any of the other services you rely on daily for storing your files or organising yourself. In fact, try using your laptop for a day without internet access. Those of us who used computers in the early 1990s remember those days, but many people have no concept of what this feels like.

We have become so used to broadband and cloud storage that we forget nowadays that our computers are often merely dumb terminals, interfacing with a large infrastructure that does most of the heavy lifting. At a macro level – undersea cables are a very weak link in the new global economy – disabling them would have extremely serious consequences and likely through many Western economies into disarray.

If you were a worrier, I’d invest in some hard drives and store your key stuff locally. It’s good practice regardless of any future global conflagration.