U.S. officials warn companies that undersea telecom cables are vulnerable to monitoring and tampering by China

U.S. officials are privately delivering an unusual warning to telecommunications companies: Undersea cables that ferry internet traffic across the Pacific Ocean could be vulnerable to tampering by Chinese repair ships. Over 400 undersea cables carry all international internet traffic globally, according to data from TeleGeography, a Washington-based telecommunications research firm, as quoted by various reports. Undersea cables transmit 99% of all transcontinental internet traffic, including instant messenger chats, stock market transactions and military secrets. Subsea cables are vulnerable to sabotage and espionage, and Beijing and Washington have accused each other of tapping cables to spy on data or carry out cyberattacks. The U.S. Department of Justice has blocked Google, Meta and Amazon from building fiber-optic cables from the United States to Hong Kong due to concerns about Chinese spying.

Undersea cables are fiber optic cables laid along the ocean floor that facilitate global internet and telecommunication connectivity. Here’s how they work:

  1. The cables contain bundles of optical fibers that transmit data using light signals. The fibers are surrounded by protective layers of insulating materials like plastic and steel.
  2. Data in the form of light pulses is transmitted through the optical fibers from one end of the cable to the other. Repeaters or amplifiers placed at intervals along the cable boost the light signal to maintain its strength over long distances.
  3. At the cable landing points on shores, the light signals are converted into electrical signals that can be transmitted over terrestrial fiber optic networks.
  4. The cables are carefully laid by specialized cable-laying ships that can carry thousands of kilometers of cable. They use methods like plowing trenches in the seafloor to bury and protect the cables, especially near shores.
  5. Submarine cables can be thousands of kilometers long, with some of the longest spanning over 20,000 km. Multiple fiber pairs within each cable enable high bandwidth data transmission.
  6. Repair of damaged undersea cables is complex, requiring specialized ships to locate, raise, splice and re-lay the repaired cable sections, which can cost millions of dollars.
  7. While most undersea cables are owned by consortiums of telecom companies, major tech giants like Google have also invested in building their own cables to meet growing data demands.

The US State Department officials say that a state-controlled Chinese company that repairs international cables, S.B. Submarine Systems, appears to be hiding its vessels’ locations from radio and satellite tracking services. They are concerned about the security risk to our undersea fiber-optic cables which run at the bottom of the oceans around the world. Google and Meta Platforms, own many cables and are investing in more. They rely on particular companies, foreign ownership to maintain those cables. U.S. officials including our military experts fear this could endanger the security of commercial and military data.

There are approximately four major companies in the world that manufacture and lay subsea cables: America’s SubCom, Japan’s NEC Corporation, France’s Alcatel Submarine Networks and China’s HMN Tech.

There are several ways to prevent foreign nations from accessing sensitive information transmitted through undersea cables, including encryption and other security measures:

  1. Strong end-to-end encryption of data: Implementing robust encryption algorithms like AES-256 or elliptic curve cryptography can make it extremely difficult for unauthorized parties to decrypt and access data even if they manage to tap into the cables.
  2. Encryption key management: Proper management and frequent rotation of encryption keys used for data transmission can mitigate the risk of keys being compromised and data being decrypted by adversaries.
  3. Physical cable security: Enhancing physical security measures like sensors, surveillance and naval patrols around cable routes and landing sites can deter attempts to gain unauthorized physical access for tapping or sabotage.
  4. Cable route diversity: Maintaining redundant cable systems with diverse geographic routing makes it harder for any single nation to monitor or disrupt all cable traffic.
  5. Quantum key distribution (QKD): Emerging technologies like QKD over fiber optic cables can enable ultra-secure key exchange immune to eavesdropping, enhancing encryption security.
  6. Advanced monitoring: Deploying systems to detect anomalies or unauthorized access attempts on cables through techniques like optical time domain reflectometry can trigger incident response.

Senior Biden administration officials have also received briefings in recent months about the risks posed by Chinese companies, including SBSS, working on repairs to undersea cables, according to the person.

There are ways in which cable protections can be increased:

The United States can take several measures to protect its undersea cables from potential destruction or surveillance by China, Russia, or other adversaries:

  1. Enhance physical security and monitoring of undersea cables, especially at landing sites and chokepoints like the Strait of Malacca. This could involve increased naval patrols, sensors, and surveillance.
  2. Invest in redundant cable systems and diverse routing to provide resilience and ensure continuous connectivity even if some cables are damaged.
  3. Work closely with allies and partners like the Quad nations (India, Japan, Australia) on joint cable protection initiatives in the Indo-Pacific region.
  4. Counter China’s influence in undersea cable projects by offering incentives like training grants to cable consortium members to choose non-Chinese vendors like SubCom over Huawei Marine Networks.
  5. Advocate for a global multilateral regime under the UN or ITU to establish rules and accountability measures for intentional cable damage, giving jurisdiction to the cable owner’s state to prosecute perpetrators.
  6. Enhance capabilities to detect and deter undersea espionage activities by adversary submarines or unmanned underwater vehicles near cable locations.
  7. Promote diversification of cable ownership and operations to reduce overreliance on a few companies or nations that could be compromised.

Overall, a multi-pronged approach involving physical security, legal frameworks, economic incentives, and cooperation with allies is crucial to safeguarding this critical infrastructure from hostile actors.

If you are aware of specific to access undersea cables in violation of Us laws, you may be able to report this information as a whistleblower.

Jeffrey Newman is a whistleblower lawyer, whose firm represents whistleblowers in healthcare fraud cases under the False Claims Act (FCA) and also under the Securities and Exchange, FINCEN and CFTC whistleblower programs. He can be reached at Jeff@JeffNewmanLaw.com or at 617-823-3217