The Internet may also be broken by the Russian invasion

Explosions at two major national gas pipelines linking Russia to the European Union are prompting Western politicians to ask: what will be the next target?

No one has yet claimed responsibility for the attacks on the Nord Stream power lines. But US and European officials were quick to point the finger at the Kremlin as they warned that the labyrinthine network of undersea cables that feed the global internet could also be an attractive target – writes Politico.

The threat is real. This is partly because security around the cables is weak and authoritarian regimes like Russia are willing to target non-military targets and use so-called hybrid warfare tactics.

“Terrain has been a target of conflict for more than a decade,” said Keir Giles, an expert on Russian information warfare at the Chatham House think tank. “If they don’t pay much attention to securing these vital assets, Western countries have only themselves to blame.”

Here’s everything you need to know about the threat to undersea internet cables.

Almost all of the world’s Internet traffic is carried through a global network of more than 400 fiber optic pipes that together cover 1.3 million kilometers. They are operated almost exclusively by private companies such as Google and Microsoft, as well as France’s Alcatel Submarine Networks and, increasingly, China’s Huawei Marine Networks.

Dozens of such cables connect the EU to the United States – arguably the world’s most important digital connection – but similar networks connect Latin America to Asia and Africa to Europe.

The vulnerability is partly due to the location of these cables. Cables span the Earth and are often located in extremely remote areas that are easily accessible by submarines or unmanned underwater vehicles. The lack of regulatory oversight of how networks operate also makes it difficult for companies and governments to protect networks.

Most of these pipelines are located in international waters.

There are also so-called choke points, or key areas where major undersea cables cross, that are among the highest risk potential targets. In the case of Europe, these include Gibraltar and Malta, where many of the EU’s connections to Asia end after passing through Egypt’s Suez Canal. In the case of the United States, the New York coast is the primary connection point to Europe. The West Coast of the United Kingdom is the connecting hub between the United States and the rest of Europe.

At the heart of the concern is a foreign government – such as Russia, China or North Korea – sabotaging these undersea cables, which are mostly unguarded and outside the control of Western governments. National security officials have warned that hostile systems could also try to tap these cables for surveillance purposes, although both U.S. and European authorities have conducted such deep-sea cable-snapping activities.

The risk is not new. For at least a decade, policymakers have signaled that undersea Internet cables are easy targets and require more government support to keep them safe. Nearly two years ago, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters that undersea cables are not only vital to civil society, such as the functioning of financial markets, but also “to various military capabilities.” Most Western militaries can quickly turn to satellite backup communications if these undersea cables are compromised.

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