Will Air Force Cyber Command quell or fuel conspiracy theories?

Wired reports June 19 reports from Marlborough, MA, where the US Air Force held a confab to promote its new Cyber Command, which is to go operational in 105 days. While the command’s mission is still “very much in question,” it will certainly provide further opportunity for corporate-Pentagon collaboration. Wired writes that on the symposium’s exhibition floor, companies like IBM bragged about “partnering for dominance” with the military in cyberspace.

Reports have not mentioned whether the confab included discussion of the most prominent apparent attacks on global cyber-infrastructure—the Internet outages across large swaths of the Mediterranean, Middle East and Indian subcontinent earlier this year, which The Economist in its Feb. 7 edition says sparked an “online frenzy” of conspiracy theories:

When two undersea cables were damaged, apparently by ships’ anchors, five miles north of Alexandria on January 30th, it seemed like a reminder of the fragility of the internet. The cables—one owned by FLAG Telecom, a subsidiary of India’s Reliance Group, the other (SEA-ME-WE 4) by a consortium of 16 telecoms firms—carry almost 90% of the data traffic that goes through the Suez canal. When the connections failed, they took with them almost all internet links between Europe and the Gulf and South Asia.

Egypt lost 70% of its internet connectivity immediately. More than half of western India’s outbound capacity crashed, messing up the country’s outsourcing industry. Over the next few days, as cable operators sought new routes, 75m people from Algeria to Bangladesh saw internet links disrupted or cut off.

But when, on February 1st, another of FLAG Telecom’s cables was damaged, this time on the other side of the Arabian peninsula, west of Dubai, the story started to change. As an internet user known as spyd3rweb wrote on digg.com, “1 cable = an accident; 2 cables = a possible accident; 3 cables = deliberately sabotaged.” The conspiracy theories started to take wing.

“We need to ponder the possibility”, declared a posting on defensetech.org, “that these cable cuts were intentional malicious acts. And even if the first incident was just an innocent but important accident, the second could well be a terrorist copycat event.” Or American villainy, said others. A user called Blakey Rat reported that “the US navy was at one point technically able to tap into undersea fibre-optic cables using a special chamber mounted on a support submarine.” A website called the Galloping Beaver asked, “where is the USS Jimmy Carter?“—a nuclear attack submarine which had apparently vanished.

The notion that something spookier than ships’ anchors was to blame gained ground when Egypt’s transport ministry said it had studied video footage of the sea lanes where the cables had been, and no ships had crossed the line of the breakage for 12 hours before and after the accident (the area is, in fact, off limits to shipping). Suspicion spread when yet another cable—between Qatar and the United Arab Emirates—went down on February 3rd. “Beyond the realm of coincidence!” said a user of ArabianBusiness.com.

In fact, the fourth break was unsuspicious: the network was taken down by its operator because of a power failure. But by that time the conspiracists were in overdrive. Slashdot.org, a discussion board, said Iran had lost all internet access on February 1st. “A communications disruption can mean only one thing—invasion,” said bigdavex, quoting a line from a “Star Wars” film. Bloggers in Pakistan, having recovered from their disruption, returned with a vengeance. The broken cables, they said, forced a delay in the opening of an oil bourse in Tehran; this would have led, claimed pkpolitics.com, to the mass selling of dollars “which would have instantly crashed [the American] economy”. Marcus Salek of New World Order 101.com added that “President Putin ordered the Russian air force to take immediate action to protect the Russian nation’s vital undersea cables.”

There is just one small problem: Iran’s internet connectivity was never lost. Todd Underwood and Earl Zmijewski of Renesys, an internet-monitoring firm, reported that four-fifths of the 695 networks with connections in Iran were unaffected. Most of the other theories dissolve under analysis, too. Perhaps the American navy can bug fibre-optic cables but it’s not clear how. A report for the European Parliament found in 2000 that “optical-fibre cables do not leak radio frequency signals and cannot be tapped using inductive loops. [Intelligence agencies] have spent a great deal of money on research into tapping optical fibres, reportedly with little success.”

It may be rare for several cables to go down in a week, but it can happen. Global Marine Systems, a firm that repairs marine cables, says more than 50 cables were cut or damaged in the Atlantic last year; big oceans are criss-crossed by so many cables that a single break has little impact. What was unusual about the damage in the Suez canal was that it took place at a point where two continents’ traffic is borne along only three cables. More are being laid. For the moment, there is only one fair conclusion: the internet is vulnerable, in places, but getting more robust.

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  1. New attack on SMW4 cable off Egypt
    The Egyptian navy detained three scuba divers in a dinghy near Alexandria, who were “cutting the undersea cable” of local telco Telecom Egypt on March 27. Egyptian news agency MENA identified the affected cable as SMW4: the same one which was in fatc cut, causing an Internet slowdown in parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia. The SMW4 cable (more properly known as South East Asia–Middle East–Western Europe 4 or SEA-ME-WE 4) is the same that was targeted in an attack five years ago. (GigaOm, March 28)