Who cut the cables?

Curiouser and curiouser. Last Wednesday two undersea communication cables carrying Internet traffic were severed near Alexandria, Egypt, causing widespread outages in Egypt and India that left a reported 100 million people without Net access. On Friday, it was discovered that a third cable, off the coast of Dubai, had been cut. And then, over the weekend, a fourth cable, between the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, was reported to be damaged.

No one’s quite sure who or what has caused the damage. Early reports that a wayward ship’s anchor was to blame were contradicted over the weekend by Egypt’s communications ministry, which said that no ships were in the area when the first two cables were damaged. With a lack of reliable news reports on the situation, conspiracy theories are beginning to spread through the blogosphere. One particularly imaginative theory is that a US submarine severed the cables in order to cut off internet service to Iran. Another is that it’s all a ruse to distract attention from a big wire-tapping effort.

Whatever the cause, or causes, the cable breaks reveal both the vulnerability and the robustness of Internet service. Though India initially lost as much as half of its Internet capacity on Wednesday, traffic was quickly rerouted and by the weekend the country was reported to have regained 90% of its usual capacity. The outage also reveals that the effects of such outages are anything but neutral; they vary widely depending on the size and resources of the user. The Christian Science Monitor reports that while most web users in India, including small outsourcing shops, “saw delays increase dramatically,” the big international outsourcing firms experienced “virtually no disruption,” thanks to the redundancy built into their networks. Infosys said in a statement that its service was unaffected, a big relief, no doubt, to the many US companies that depend so heavily on Net-connected Indian workers.

9 thoughts on “Who cut the cables?

  1. cibmak

    If the cloud holds the data, the data is not owned by anyone and therefore is neither valid nor reliable. Data that passes through many hands, computers, backup systems, etc. without any concern for the quality, has no quality and should be treated as noise. Business may be able to afford this noise because they error on their side, not on the side of the consumer. However, when it comes to health records, 20% of the US economy is in healthcare, errors lead to death and disability.

    My comment has many ramifications. Consumers are being told the service economy is good for them when in fact it allows business to be less responsive and push process and quality checks back to the consumer, taking up unreimbursed consumer time and saving the business time and money. Medically, the data must be valid and reliable from a medical ethics standpoint. The government, to protect health customers (all 300 million of us) needs to carefully regulate the relationship of the cloud to health data.

  2. Bertil

    I can’t find any map of the events: does any of your conspiracy theorist feels like arguing with drawings, to decide whether it is UAE or Iran which is targeted?

  3. Tom Panelas

    It’s disturbing to learn that the Internet, this thing we have so quickly come to depend on for so much of what is vital for the support of daily life today, is subject to the same laws of physics as dams, electrical grids, gas and oil pipelines, and highways. It shouldn’t surprise us, but it does because we have blithely come to assume that the Net is so robust and redundant that neither it nor any significant part of it can possibly “go down.” The Internet changes so many things that we can easily believe it changes everything, that resting on its lofty perch up in the clouds it is not really of this earth. But it is.

  4. Jarred

    Nick, very interesting. I posted on this story the day it broke (http://tropophilia.com/2008/01/31/the-day-the-internet-died/), but had not kept up with it since then. This is all very odd, because I believe this means both ship anchor and “geological event” rumors are ruled out. Deliberate sabotage looks more and more likely, but by who and for what reason?

    Hypothesizing on the possibility of something similar happening in America, I asked my readers if anyone could comment on the integrity of the “physical” infrastructure of U.S. web assets. For instance, how tough is security at Google’s server farms?

    So I ask you (and your readers) the same question: are we at risk?



    (BTW, making my way through The Big Switch. Fascinating, will review on my blog when finished. Stay tuned).

  5. Michael Caton

    I’d like a little more information about these particular incidents, such as local weather, currents, etc. I saw a show on those island developments being built near the UAE and even mild storms tossed 2 ton boulders several yards.

    There’s a lot of junk in the oceans floating around under the surface at neutral boyancy. Could be lots of stuff dragging across the bottom pushed by currents.

  6. Tom Lord

    Oddly enough I still retain some skepticism that this is anything other than a stochastically predictable failure. Perhaps there is even a cascade failure here, depending on the mechanical engineering of the cables vs. reality.

    But, if we assume oonspiracy — it would make some sense in two ways: a) a way to cool off and track-by-forced-rerouting some compromised tactic of the enemies of civilization; b) a little quiet demonstration that “systempunkt” cuts both ways, and one side, as it turns out, is much better at it.


  7. Jeff Price

    Rumours are rampent here in Dubai with many people suggesting its the prelude to a confrontation. In fact on my radio show we received calls from listeners who seem quite convinced. I asked one former major from the British army what he thought. In reply he said the first thing you do is take out the communication capabilities. But which country is it that is being targeted, you can post your comment on my blogspot


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