North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Defense Ministers will meet today and tomorrow to discuss a range of topics, including the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and defense planning and spending.
The meeting is also set to address the protection of critical infrastructure, in particular undersea infrastructure off-shore infrastructure.
Sometimes described as the “world’s information superhighways,” undersea cables carry over 95 percent of international data. In comparison with satellites, subsea cables provide high capacity, cost-effective, and reliable connections that are critical for our daily lives. There are approximately more than 400 active cables worldwide covering 1.3 million kilometers (half a million miles).
“We have seen that these undersea cables, pipelines are vulnerable and it’s important that we coordinate more our efforts to protect the critical infrastructure,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on Feb. 14.
In the pre-meeting press conference yesterday, Stoltenberg said the protection of undersea infrastructure will be high on the agenda.
“NATO has been working on this for many years and we are now taking it to the next level”, the Secretary General said. “We have decided to establish a new coordination cell at NATO Headquarters, to map our vulnerabilities, and engage with industry. This will support our efforts to prevent and counter threats to critical infrastructure, including undersea cables and pipelines.”
In October 2020, allied defense ministers received a confidential report on the vulnerability of transatlantic undersea cables, which prompted NATO to increase its focus in this area. Pierre Morcos, writing for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in 2021 said that Russian attention to transatlantic undersea cables, particularly in the North Atlantic Ocean, has increased commensurately with NATO’s perception of undersea cables’ importance and vulnerability.
According to Morcos, there are several conceivable objectives that physically severing a cable might achieve: cutting off military or government communications in the early stages of a conflict, eliminating internet access for a targeted population, sabotaging an economic competitor, or causing economic disruption for geopolitical purposes.
Another threat to cables is tapping them to record, copy, and steal data, which would be later collected and analyzed for espionage. Morcos believes this is difficult but could be done in one of three ways: inserting backdoors during the cable manufacturing process, targeting onshore landing stations and facilities linking cables to networks on land, or tapping the cables at sea.
FInally, there is the cyber threat. By hacking into the network management systems that private companies use to manage data traffic passing through the cables, malicious actors could disrupt data flows.
The potential for sabotage or espionage is palpable, but it is hoped that NATO’s new coordination cell – together with other regional and international efforts – can boost protection and resilience for this critical infrastructure sector.