The Vulnerability of the Commons
In recent years, U.S. officials have grown increasingly fearful of a massive cyberattack, one capable of crippling infrastructure and crashing markets. In 2010, William Lynn, then deputy secretary of defense, wrote in these pages that cyberspace was “just as critical to military operations as land, sea, air, and space.” As defense secretary, Leon Panetta warned of a “cyber–Pearl Harbor.” And in 2013, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, put cyberattacks at the top of his annual list of transnational threats.
Yet as Washington has poured billions of dollars into shoring up its defenses in the virtual world, it has largely ignored the physical infrastructure that allows cyberspace to exist in the real one. Today, roughly 95 percent of intercontinental communications traffic—e-mails, phone calls, money transfers, and so on—travels not by air or through space but underwater, as rays of light that traverse nearly 300 fiber-optic cables with a combined length of over 600,000 miles. For the most part, these critical lines of communication lack even basic defenses, both on the seabed and at a small number of poorly guarded landing points. And a mounting tally of small-scale breaches points to the potential for large-scale damage.
Washington’s neglect of undersea infrastructure extends beyond cables to an increasingly important source of global oil and gas supply: deep-water drilling. Today, offshore rigs in the Gulf of Mexico account for some 25 percent of total U.S. oil and gas production—a figure the Department of Energy predicts could reach 40 percent by 2040. Outside the United States, global production from deep-water wells has risen from 1.5 million barrels per day in 2000 to over six million barrels per day in 2014. As the infrastructure for offshore drilling grows more sophisticated and widespread, it is also becoming more susceptible to attack, with the potential consequences exceeding those of the giant 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Although human activities underwater are regulated by numerous international bodies, no single entity has both the authority and the ability to take the lead. In the United States, the Coast Guard is responsible for enforcing security plans at the largest offshore energy platforms and protecting underwater structures at some ports. Yet no government agency or department has responsibility for the defense of the country’s submerged energy and cable infrastructure. As a consequence, two of the most critical sectors of the U.S. economy—communications and energy—could easily fall prey to a well-organized terrorist plot or a foreign attack. Fortunately, Washington still has time to correct course.
Some 95 percent of intercontinental communications travel underwater.
WHAT LIES BENEATH
British engineers laid the first submarine telegraph line across the English Channel in 1850. Eight years later, an effort backed by the American financier Cyrus Field bridged the Atlantic, linking Ireland to Newfoundland with a telegraph wire that eventually transmitted almost seven words per minute. After Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876, the first underwater telephone cable soon followed, carrying conversations beneath the San Francisco Bay.
Although the number of cables proliferated, their speed and capacity stagnated until the introduction of two key advances during the 1920s and 1930s: coaxial copper cores and polyethylene insulation, which allowed individual cables to carry multiple voice channels and provided improved durability. In subsequent decades, capacity soared, rising from 36 voice channels per cable in the 1950s to around 4,000 in the 1970s. Nevertheless, installation and maintenance costs remained high, making satellites decidedly more attractive for carrying telephone traffic. Until the 1980s, satellites could provide almost ten times as much capacity as submarine cables while requiring only one-tenth as large an investment.
But then fiber-optic technology revolutionized global communications. In 1988, a consortium of British, French, and U.S. telecommunications firms laid the first fiber-optic cable across the Atlantic. TAT-8, as the line was called, could carry 40,000 telephone calls simultaneously—an order of magnitude greater than most existing coaxial cables could handle and at a fraction of the previous cost. Today’s fiber-optic cables can transmit an amount of data equivalent to the entire printed collection of the Library of Congress in about 20 seconds.