Will Russia immerse Europe in a digital blackout? The Russian invasion of Ukraine has focused Western attention on a new kind of threat. Moscow is suspected of spying on submarine telecommunications cables, installed at the bottom of the oceans, and providing almost every Internet connection in the world.
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Much cheaper than space satellites, submarine telecommunications cables are vital to global economic activities. An attack on these cables in Europe could make the Internet inaccessible to millions of homes and businesses. We take stock of the threats looming over these “highways of the sea.”
1. What are submarine cables for?
99% of the world’s Internet connections go through them, wrote Serge Besanger, a professor at ESCE International Business School, in an article for The afternoon edition, Wednesday, March 9th. Every phone call, every online or email messaging exchange, every visit to a website, or every bank transfer is possible with these cables. They allow people and businesses from five continents to communicate with each other.
Some 420 cables are scattered across the oceans. They then connect to servers that store digital data that passes through cables.
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If they were laid end to end, these cables would reach a length of more than a million miles. This is three times the distance between the Earth and the Moon. Each fiber optic cable is no bigger than a garden hose and is coated with steel and plastic to withstand the vagaries of the seabed.
Despite this protection, strong sea currents, boat anchors scratching the ground, or even sharks can damage them, Thomas Lecointe, chief operating officer of Alcatel Submarine Network, told franceinfo . Others, “mega-cables”, are larger and stronger.
2. Where are these cables?
Around the world. But France plays a particularly strategic role. First of all, the leader in the manufacture of these cables is based in Calais, in the north. The company, Alcatel Submarine Network, lays 50,000 miles of cables each year. There are only three companies in the world that make these cables.
Of the more than 400 submarine links, a large number of cables connect the UK and France. A concentration that could make them more vulnerable. Finally, 80% of French Internet traffic passes through the cables that connect Europe with the United States. Therefore, the Atlantic Ocean is especially guarded to avoid unpleasant surprises. An ocean that the Russians regularly inspect.
3. Why is Russia suspected of being interested in these cables?
Suspicions really weigh on Russia. In early February 2022, Russian army ships positioned themselves in front of Ireland for military exercises. Nothing out of the ordinary, the Russians even shared pictures of these workouts that TFI issued on Wednesday, March 16, 2022. But these exercises were conducted over a large mass of telecommunication cables. Westerners suspected that Russia was a scout.
A few months earlier, in front of Normandy, a Russian science ship suspected of being a military ship had been discovered in September. Suspicious, the French navy had hired a patrol boat to escort and monitor the boat. The so-called Yantar has submarine drones capable of diving to great depths. In fact, he was suspected of spying on strategic cables.
“The Russian navy has long been interested in these submarine cables. These Russian media are very often geolocated at submarine cable concentration points.”summarizes Jean-Luc Vuillemin, director of international networks at Orange, where franceinfo .
4. Is our internet connection really under threat?
The destruction of submarine cables is not new. Already, during the First and then World War II, belligerent nations had become accustomed to cutting off communication networks. During the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Moscow had already been suspected of having cut off Ukrainian submarine telecommunications cables.
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With the ubiquity of the Internet and telecommunications today, the submarine cable network has therefore acquired strategic importance. These cables are not very thick, they are relatively easy to cut. 51 submarine cables are connected in France. It would only take three or four damages for the situation to become critical, according to Jean-Luc Vuillemin, questioned by TF1 .
To protect itself, the French Navy is conducting more and more surveillance operations on submarine cables. “I made the decision to provide our armies with the means to reach 6,000 meters. 6,000 meters, this covers 97% of the seabed and effectively protects our interests “announced Florence Parly, Minister of the Armed Forces, a few days before the start of the war in Ukraine, on February 14, 2022. It proves that the threat is taken very seriously.
Especially because Russia has developed its own telecommunications network in recent years. Cutting submarine cables would have little impact on the country, unlike ours. “The job of a soldier is to plan, to consider all the hypotheses, in mid-March, Eric Lavault, a spokesman for the French Navy, said franceinfo . And this hypothesis is part of it. »