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Cable cutter nutters chase underwater conspiracies

Plumbing the depths

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 cables.

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 Beckert, 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 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 Beckert, 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. ®

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