Home Tech & Gadgets War in Ukraine: Russia can “manipulate” Internet traffic

War in Ukraine: Russia can “manipulate” Internet traffic


Po ensure data exchange and in particular the operation of the Internet, 436 submarine cables are currently in service around the world. From 130 to 20,000 kilometers in length each, they extend over a total of 1.3 million kilometers, or 32 times around the Earth. Walid Mathlouthi is head of the infrastructure division in the development office of the International Telecommunications Union* (ITU, a UN agency). He previously worked seven years for Google in the field of network infrastructure, including submarine cables.

Point : What are the threats to submarine cables in the context of the conflict in Ukraine?

Walid Mathlouthi : To control the Internet, there are much more effective and less expensive means than cutting the cables, which remains, however, a measure of last resort. It is, for example, possible to manipulate data traffic for targeted Internet users, for example the Russian or Ukrainian population in areas controlled by Russia. By controlling exchange points, Russia is already cutting off access to Western news sites or to Meta (Facebook’s parent company, editor’s note). It is also possible to resort to cyberattacks against sites or infrastructures, as Russia did in 2015 against the Ukrainian energy network.

Which cables are important in this conflict?

Only one cable must be monitored: that of the Kerch Strait, which connects Crimea to Russia. It is operated by Russian state-owned Rostelecom and has served Russian-controlled areas since 2014, with internet traffic now passing through Russia. It is very unlikely that it will be damaged by the Russians!

In general, what are the threats to submarine cables?

Contrary to what we often hear, shark bites or sabotage seem very rare. The main source of failure is related to fishing (44.4%), so much so that when the route of a new cable is planned, it is imperative to coordinate with fishermen’s organizations to know the places to avoid, especially in the China Sea. In addition, ship anchors (14.6%) are regularly the cause of cable cuts. Component failures, for example optical amplifiers (distributed along the route and powered by the cable, Editor’s note), are also in a good position (7.2%). Corrosion (3.7%) poses some problems, as do tectonic plate movements and earthquakes (2.6%), as was the case recently in Tonga. Oil drilling (0.9%), fish bites (0.5%) and icebergs (0.1%) complete the panel of threats. Despite the efforts of the repair teams, 21.3% of incidents are not elucidated, which fuels certain conspiracy theories, on sabotage, for example.

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Submarine cables have become essential for humanity to communicate: can the UN and the ITU protect them, or even consider them as common property?

Absolutely not: everything is private, and it’s getting worse and worse with the growing involvement of Web giants replacing telecom operators. However, there is an awareness of the importance of these infrastructures. Under the Trump administration, undersea cables have been defined as vital to US national security. The White House has ordered restrictions to prohibit the use of Chinese equipment. It also forced American operators to terminate their cables on the coasts of countries friendly to the United States. This question becomes highly political, as dozens of cables are being built to absorb the increase in Internet traffic, which today reaches 780 terabytes per second, compared to 250 in 2017. And that’s right the tip of the iceberg, because private traffic is even more important. Google alone moves 1 petabyte (= 1,000 terabytes) per second between its data centers, which is one-third more traffic than the entire Internet. We understand why these companies have good reasons to invest in submarine cables…

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Historically, telecom operators paid for and installed submarine cables. Today, content providers on the Internet, including Google, Facebook, Microsoft or Amazon, are the main funders of new cables. How do you experience this evolution?

We have moved from a world where voice calls were king, to the delight of operators like Orange or AT&T, to a system governed by data, in which traditional voice calls tend to disappear in favor of exchanges via WhatsApp, FaceTime, Skype or Zoom. So the incumbents make a lot less money. Today, the deployment of new cables is almost a monopoly of the Web giants, often organized in consortium.

What are your concerns for the years to come?

My main concern is the lack of international regulation. It’s the Wild West, companies do what they want! With the development of the cloud and artificial intelligence, the Internet user does not really have visibility on the processing and storage of the data that he entrusts to the network. The better the connectivity, the easier it is to process sensitive data on the other side of the planet. We are in a world where reality increasingly comes from the Internet, and not from our physical environment. We must therefore demand much more transparency.

What is the role of ITU?

We try to allow as many people as possible to be connected to the Internet. Today, 2.9 billion human beings do not have access to the network, sometimes for lack of infrastructure, sometimes for lack of means. In my department, we work a lot on increasing connections with the least served areas, in particular by installing more fibre, whether in submarine cables or at the foot of buildings and houses.

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