20,000 leagues under the sea

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Whilst researching the piece t’other week on my friendly rodent pals (you research this stuff? – ed.) I came across reported situations where lockdown infestations had caused whole office blocks to shut down due to the gnawing of the buildings’ cable infrastructure. And we’re talking Canary Wharf sized entities here. Which got me thinking of our almost total reliance on such infrastructure and how vulnerable we may be to its interruption.

The global network of undersea fibre-optic communications cables, stretching over half a million miles in length, is a technological marvel. Carrying over 95% of global traffic (the remainder is carried by satellite) the network also processes some $10trn in financial transfers via the SWIFT system of bank transfers. It’s safe to say the network supports our daily life to an unprecedented level.

Undersea cables are nothing new. In 1858, two ships – HMS Agamemnon and the USS Niagara – met in the middle of the Atlantic, attached their respective cables to the other, and headed back home in opposite directions. Eleven days later, Queen Victoria sent US President, James Buchanan, the first transatlantic telegram wishing peace and prosperity. Alas, the triumph was short lived as the cable failed a few weeks later, leaving Queenie in the dark wrt her most recent Amazon Prime order.

Damage and interruption has been the modus operandi ever since, and an estimated 150 cables are severed every year due mainly to trawling equipment accidents and anchors. Usually, the downtime is accidental and the system has enough slack in it to ensure rerouting takes place pretty much instantaneously. However, more recent examples do highlight our increased vulnerability. In January last year, a volcanic eruption severed the single cable to Tonga, cutting-off all communications to the pacific island for five days. Admittedly, Britain, unlike Tonga, is connected to the rest of the world by over sixty cables, but we are far more reliant on digital services and we have far more powerful enemies. When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, one of its first moves was to sever its cable connection. Last summer, we were warned of Russian submarine activity off the coast of Ireland where a slew of pipes and cables reach land. A month later it was tracked into the English Channel.

Sabotaged cables could pose an “existential threat to British security” warned the now-PM-hopeful Rishi Sunak in a report for the Policy Exchange think tank. It’s clear that much could be done to protect a critical and fundamental element of modern life, so the next time you open a webpage just remember the data you’re accessing will invariably have been propelled by lasers down fibre-optic threads under the sea, at just shy of the speed of light. And perhaps only just ahead of Putin’s attempts to stop you getting it.