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wire 2016 Specialist Article No.1

Intelligence agencies target information highways

Submarine cables make the global information highways a reality. The newest spy scandal forces states to further expand their networks. Now, the idea of a European internet is considered.

Fiber optic cables have taken hold of the leading position with a share of 95% of worldwide data traffic, replacing satellite links. In the last 15 years numerous high-performance submarine cables for the Internet were laid between continents. Many manufacturers are pleased about their full order books. For intelligence agencies such as NSA, this enormous mass of data is a real paradise. In order to keep information secret, several states are now counting on new cable links.

Continuous network expansion

Without submarine cables, there would be no global communications network. They transport vast amounts of phone calls and emails, make cable television possible and provide a fast internet. In order to meet rising demand and to reach new regions, the networks are continuously expanded.

For outsiders, submarine cables appear to be unproblematic – cables laid in great depths appear to be risk-free. Yet they were never secure. Dangers already lurked in the past.

After all, cables withstand mostly currents and the high pressure levels of the deep sea. However, problems always arise near the coast. Trawl nets and anchoring ships damage cables. For example, the anchor of a ship harboring in the port of Mombasa, Kenya, severed a submarine cable. As a result, large parts of East Africa were cut off from the Internet.

Spying on the net

Sea quakes, currents and sandbanks can also create disturbances. Cables are also a target for attacks. Last year, divers planned on severing the SEA-ME-WE 4 submarine cable off of the coast of Egypt, a cable important for providing the internet connection between Europe, Southeast Asia, India and the Middle East.

Last year, Edward Snowden revealed that spying activities, mainly of the U.S. and Great Britain, had gotten out of hand. Spying was justified by claiming it was being done to fight terrorism and to warn of imminent attacks. However, many states were shocked by the full extent of intelligence gathering.

Even though modern fiber optic cables have replaced copper coaxial cables over the course of the last years, intelligence agencies were able to eavesdrop. Already at the turn of this millennium reports surfaced, claiming U.S. submarines were tapping into these cables, which back then hardly appeared possible. Experts assume that fiber optic cables are also wiretapped on land. Especially amplifiers and nodes are seen as suitable targets.

Rich harvest

Fiber optic cables allow for a rich harvest, as they transmit a huge amount of data. Optical fibers transmit data as light impulses, nearly with the speed of light. For a pair of optical fibers, data rates of around 160 gigabit per second are currently standard. Fiber optic cables thus remain essential for carrying data. Data rates are higher, and bandwidth is greater than what satellites can offer. This makes them economically viable, despite high costs for laying them under the sea.

Both phone calls and data are transferred over fiber optic cables. Despite strong tubing, they can be spied upon, to a certain degree. Where fiber optic cables are slightly bent, data can leave its path. A small amount of optical information can “leak” due to Rayleigh scattering. The emitted light can be captured by sensors, amplified and turned back into information.

Typical fiber optic cables are protected by a stainless steel tube and are placed in a water blocking compound. On the outside, another layer of material protects the cable from salt water. Layers of steel wires covered by plastics add further protection. A layer of copper foil can also be used. Hybrid cables also feature a copper cable.

Tapping into submarine cables

Cable system TAT-14, a system owned by German telco Deutsche Telekom, made headlines during the wiretapping scandal. A large part of German overseas communication uses this system. The 9,300 miles long cable runs twice through the North Atlantic and connects Europe with the U.S. Four fiber optic pairs with 640 GBit/s SDH capacity and a total design capacity of 3.2 Bit/s. British signals intelligence agency GCHQ gained access to TAT-14 as part of the Tempora program, reported the English newspaper “The Guardian”. U.S. intelligence agency tapped submarine cable Sea-MeWe 4, which is 11,600 miles long and connects France with Singapore. Dense Wavelength Division Multiplexing (DWDM) is used to increase capacity of the fibers, using different wavelengths to transmit data.

New connection – without the U.S.

Data is routed nearly completely over U.S. networks. “We need to respect privacy, human rights and the sovereignty of nations,” remarked Brazilian President Dilma Vana Rousseff. A plan has therefore been made to create a direct connection between Europe and Brazil through a submarine cable. Cable laying will start in summer 2014 and the $ 185 million expensive project spanning 5,300 miles is to be completed 18 months later. The goal is to make it a lot more difficult for the U.S. to tap the cable.

Finland also wants to protect itself against spies through a new submarine cable. The cable is to be laid across the Baltic Sea and is supposed to link the Scandinavian country with Germany. The background is that Sweden, Finland's neighbor, has been allowing foreign data traffic to be tapped since a couple of years. Finnish Minister Pekka Haavisto considers this “Sweden spying” and the neighboring country is viewed as a tool for foreign agencies. Since the only internet cable runs through Sweden, Finland wants to change the situation. A new cable needs to be laid.

A “European internet”

First, a global network of high performance cables was rolled out. Now, further cables will be installed, to bypass the U.S. and its control of data flows. The cable market remains on the move, even though the reasons are unfortunate. In Europe, the spy scandal has resulted in the idea of an internet just for Europe.

The fastest route so far was across nodes in the U.S. or Asia, which made it easy for intelligence agencies to listen in and spy. Now, views have changed. In light of the data scandals it not only makes economic sense for us to reduce our dependency from America,” explained Austrian EU Commissioner Johannes Hahn in an interview with German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung. German Chancellor Angela Merkel also sees need for action. Talks with French President Franςois Hollande also included new routes for cables. The Chancellor stated that “it is unnecessary for one's emails and other information to pass over the Atlantic, communication networks can also be created within Europe.” Should such a network be constructed, data originating in Germany would be transmitted over cables within Germany.

The trump card

As a product, cables will not only continue to play a central role for the expansion of the Internet but also as a trump card to prevent espionage since the development of spy-proof cables unfortunately appears to be far in the future.

The wire 2016 trade fair in Düsseldorf

At wire, the leading international trade fair for the wire and cable industry, exhibitors will showcase the latest machinery and equipment for this sector. Synergy effects will be generated by the parallel staging of Tube 2016, International Pipe and Tube Trade Fair. Both events will be held from April 4 – 8, 2016 in Düsseldorf, Germany.

For wire 2016 press information, contact:
Anne Meerboth-Maltz
E-mail: ameerboth@mdna.com
Tel. (312) 781-5185

Messe Dusseldorf North America Located at 150 N. Michigan Avenue, Suite 2920, Chicago, IL. Phone: 312-781-5180. .