Under the Sea

Beta News reports that 3 undersea cables carrying a huge amount of Internet traffic for the Middle East and South Asia were cut within 40 minutes of each other, resulting in large outages in several countries. The outage underscores the immense strategic value of fiber optic cables in the information age. It incidentally highlights the degree to which the economic system of the world is dependent on a hegemon simply for existence. First, to the news:

Internet and voice traffic to much of the Middle East and south Asia has been disrupted by the loss overnight of three major cables spanning the Mediterranean.

According to a notice from France Telecom, the three provisioning cables linking Sicily to Egypt were lost within about 40 minutes of one another Friday morning (local time). A France Telecom-owned maintenance ship will be dispatched to inspect the site within a few hours. Until then, it's not known what might have caused the cuts. ... the hardest-hit countries so far are Maldives (100% out of service), India (82% out of service), Qatar (73%), Djibouti (71%), and United Arab Emirates (68%). Anecdotal reports also suggest that Egypt's widely affected as well.

RIPE notes the pivotal role that the undersea cable network plays in the global system and the particularly vulnerability of Middle Eastern and South Asian cables to disruption. Nearly a year ago today three cables were cut in almost the same place.

On the morning of 30 January 2008, two submarine cables in the Mediterranean Sea were damaged near Alexandria, Egypt. The media reported significant disruptions of Internet and phone traffic in the Middle East and South Asia. About two days later, a third cable was cut, this time in the Persian Gulf, 56 kilometers off the coast of Dubai. In the days that followed more news on other cable outages came in. ...

But before anyone digs out his tinfoil hate, RIPE noted that cable faults are not uncommon. Some 50 outages were reported in the Atlantic alone in 2007. However, the Middle and South Asia traffic runs through a relatively small group of cables, a sort of information choke point. A map of cables running through the Med is provided at the link.

The world map of cable routes shows that Europe, North America and East Asia are well connected; numerous cables connect the continents and countries. However, Africa, the Middle East and South Asia have far fewer cable systems. Looking at the available bandwidth or capacity in these cables, the differences become even more apparent. Faults in cables connecting these regions therefore have a higher impact than comparable faults in trans-Atlantic cables.

The Financial Times says experts warn the outages may last up to two weeks. "Telecommunications industry experts warned that the potential impact could be significant and noted that a similar incident in late January which affected two of the same cables took almost two weeks to fix and caused severe disruption to business and individual users." This will be extremely inconvenient and costly for businesses in the affected areas.

“The potential impact of an outage of this size cannot be underestimated – it is like severing a major artery,” said Mr Wright. “In a global economy with financial centres based around the world, and an increasing use of outsourced call centres and IT departments, it is essential that companies are confident in their communications networks.”

The man in the street might ask why fiber optic cables between South Asia and Europe are run under the Mediterranean at all instead of being laid above ground over the Middle East and North Africa. One answer, apart from the cost, is security. The cables are safer underwater. That is to say, proof from most bandits or terrorists and subject to long-term disruption only by the dominant naval power. The dominant naval power can prevent or allow cable repair ships to service a set of cables; permanently disrupt the bulk of information traffic flowing between many points over the globe but the thinking was that it wouldn't. In some perverse way even al-Qaeda operatives and the LeT are cursing the undersea cable companies for not managing things better because they too are dependent upon the systems protected by the hegemon to attack the hegemon.

The conventional wisdom was that the United States, as the world's system administrator, had a vested self-interest in supporting the financial, security and information systems upon which everyone -- even nations hostile to it -- relied. However, the recent upheavals in the financial system raise the intriguing possibility that actors driven by greed or ideology, may be tempted to subvert the operating system for their own gain. The comparable strategy in the computer world is achieved via the use of malicious rootkits. Instead of attacking the operating system from the outside, where its defenses are strongest, rootkits attack the system from the inside, exploiting trust.

Any application program is controlled by the kernel, and any system access (such as writing to/reading from the disk) is performed by the kernel. The application will call a kernel syscall, and the kernel will do the work and deliver the result back to the application. From a users viewpoint, these syscalls are the lowest level of system functions, and provide access to filesystems, network connections, and other goodies. By modifying kernel syscalls, kernel rootkits can hide files, directories, processes, or network connections without modifying any system binaries. Obviously, checksums to confirm the integrity of a system are useless in this situation.

While in the long run the subversion of the operating system will be bad for everyone, in the short run it may provide spectacular advantages to those who don't plan on hanging around forever. As those who trusted Bernard Madoff now realize, nothing can be more damaging than an "inside job". Things look perfectly normal all the way until the end. Thank God that while the financial components of the operating system look a little dicey, we can rely on the integrity of the world's security and information systems to keep civilization going. Can't we?