[LINK] Cable cutter nutters chase underwater conspiracies

Bernard Robertson-Dunn brd at iimetro.com.au
Fri Feb 8 09:46:17 EST 2008

Cable cutter nutters chase underwater conspiracies
Plumbing the depths
By Dan Goodin in San Francisco
Published Thursday 7th February 2008 01:57 GMT
The Register

The failure of four undersea cables in less than a week is stoking 
suspicions that saboteurs want to disrupt internet traffic passing 
between Europe and the Middle East. But there's little more than 
suspicions to work with since no one has yet to even reach the damaged 

The first two failures occurred last Wednesday when fiber-optic cables 
connecting Europe with Egypt were sliced. Telecom representatives 
initially blamed the outages on damage from ships that were in the area.

Egyptian government officials later said there had been no ships in the 
area at the time of the cuts and that the space, in fact, was off limits.

As a result, Egypt at one point lost about 70 per cent of its traffic to 
the outside internet. Connectivity in India was also noticeably 
affected, according to reports. Connectivity in the regions has since 
improved as traffic has been rerouted.

More recently, two additional cables have failed. One of them travels 
between the Qatari island of Haloul and the United Arab Emirates island 
of Das. The other passed between the UAE and Oman. For a while, there 
were reports the outages knocked Iran off the internet. In fact, the 
country's connectivity remained relatively unscathed.

These latter outages, it turns out, have caused fewer disruptions 
because one cable carried more regional traffic and the other, a 
redundant, "self-healing" strand of fiber allowed the cable to continue 
to function, just not at full capacity. And as it turns out, the outage 
in the cable linking Qatar and the UAE was caused by problems related to 
a power failure, rather than a cut, according TeleGeography, a firm that 
provides research and consulting services to underseas cable operators.

The much bigger effect has been the fodder the unlikely number of 
failures have had on internet bloggers, who have attributed the downing 
of the lines to the actions of everyone from Al Qaeda to intelligence 
operatives working for Israel or the US. Some have speculated the 
disruption was designed to prevent Iran from bringing a new oil trading 
exchange online. Others claim it's the work of cable maintenance 
companies trying to create more demand for their services.

"I've seen all kinds of just crazy, crazy postings on Digg," said 
Stephan Becket, a research director at TeleGeology. "It's completely 
absurd speculation on the web right now and nobody really knows anything."

One post, for example 
theorized a well funded operation was at work after learning expensive 
cutting torches may have been used. In fact, repair crews are still 
scrambling to the location of the cuts, so no one has yet seen the 
damaged cables.

Like with most conspiracy theories, we're missing a few key pieces of 
the puzzle. The root cause of the three cut cables remains a mystery. At 
one point, incorrect reports brought the number cut cables to five, 
causing even more sober security watchers to wonder if maybe there was 
something more afoot than simple error.

"It is really odd," uber-security researcher and thinker Bruce Schneier, 
said of the spate of outages. "I hate to fuel conspiracy theories 
because I tend not to believe them, but it would be nice to know if this 
is just a really weird coincidence."

In a blog posting here 
<http://www.cs.columbia.edu/~smb/blog/2008-02/2008-02-04.html> Columbia 
University computer science professor Steven Bellovin put it this way:

"As a security guy, I'm paranoid, but I don't understand the threat 
model here. On the other hand, four accidental failures in a week is a 
bit hard to swallow, too. Let's hope there will be close, open 
examination of the failed parts of the cables."

According to Becket, there's nothing unusual about the number of 
outages. There are about 100 cut cables every year, enough to keep a 
fleet of 25 cable repair ships fully occupied. Most are caused by 
fishing mishaps, but ship anchors and geological causes such as earth 
quakes also play a role.

The first two cables to be knocked out were located within a few 
kilometers of each other off the coast of Alexandria, Egypt, making it 
likely that they both suffered damage from the same event. That means 
there was only one other cut.

So it looks like the tin foil-dawning contingent will have to jump on 
another story to feed their conspiracy fetish. This one, it would 
appear, is coming up empty.



Bernard Robertson-Dunn
Sydney Australia
brd at iimetro.com.au

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