Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Mysterious Submarine Cable Cuts

Earlier this year there was a lot of news about a coincidental series of submarine cable cuts affecting internet and telecommunications in the middle east. Eventually there were 6 or 7 cuts, mostly affecting the same two major Europe-to-Asia cables, from the last week in January to the last week in February 2008.

At the time I expected that gradually good explanations for the various events would emerge, and to a certain extent, some explanations did emerge. But the story disappeared pretty quickly and good explanations never really materialized. The various explanations that did emerge were mostly subsequently debunked or disproven.

So the question is whether it really was a coincidence that the same two cables suffered approximately 6 cuts (the story gets muddled after the 5th event), or whether the events had some deeper, more sinister signficance.

If they did, the events have great significance for the future. Although cutting submarine cables as a method of facilitating intelligence collection is not new, our fragile, global information economy is pretty new. If someone felt like it, they could cause major havoc by deliberately severing submarine cables. Those cables are pretty vulnerable to someone dragging an anchor along the sea floor specifically for that purpose.

It would be interesting to know whether this has really happened, or whether the six related cable cuts earlier this year were just coincidental, but I'm not sure we ever will.

That situation gets to the heart of conspiracy theories - the notion that there are mysterious forces at work just beyond our comprehension or understanding. This feeling engenders both fascination and foreboding.

But just because you are paranoid doesn't mean there aren't some people out to get you. Certainly some conspiracies are real, while many, perhaps most, are not.

People tend to fall into one of two categories - Mulder or Scully (speaking of which, maybe I'll review the new X-Files movie...) Either, in general, they want to believe, or they tend to debunk. But those black-and-white categories don't apply very neatly to a very gray world.

But if there's someone out there who cuts submarine cables for their own purposes, it's probably going to happen again, and probably more in the future.


John the Scientist said...

Yeah, all the debunkers who claimed that Alger Hiss was framed got a nasty shock when the Committee for State Security opened their files...

I'd be inclined to say that at worst this was a combination of accident and design - but how many times do ships' anchors cut the cable in a given year? The fact that repair ships exist says that this is not exactly uncommon. But if I wanted to probe the reaction to an event, I would do it just enough to look like a spike that was withing the expected value of cuts per year - it's very very hard to detect a signal that's right above the natural noise level.

And isn't there a hefty fine for accidentally cutting the cable?

CW said...

There are about 50 cable failures yearly worldwide, so 6 in a month is hardly even above average. But the 6 failures all affected the same 2 cables servicing the same area - the middle east and south asia, mostly within a few days of one another, and were sequenced in such a way to cripple internet access in specific areas of the middle east.

So it could absolutely be coincidence - but it's a big coincidence.

John the Scientist said...

CW - take a gander at Giant Midgets and see if you feel like adding anything. Something smells in the Ivins case.