The threat lurking in the sea of Portugal: sabotage of submarine cables would be a catastrophe

Date:

Share post:

Several Russian ships have been seen circling the Portuguese coast, through which 10% to 15% of the world’s communications pass. The head of the Navy’s General Staff has himself admitted that part of the Russian intention is to spy on the undersea cables, but a joint strategy to respond to the problem is still lacking

Russia is spying on undersea cables and has Portugal on its radar “Obviously there is a threat”: what the constant presence of Russian ships in Portuguese waters means
Homes without Internet, cell phones without social networks, hospitals unable to operate, and economies in brutal crisis. It sounds like a doomsday scenario, but the threats constantly made by Russia make this scenario something to imagine. “If we prove the West’s complicity in sabotaging the Nord Stream pipelines, then we will have no constraints – not even moral ones – to prevent us from destroying enemies’ communication cables.” The warning comes from Dmitry Medvedev, Vice Chairman of the Security Council of the Russian Federation, one of Vladimir Putin’s closest allies.

This is one of the threats on the Portuguese coast, where numerous ships flying the Russian flag have passed by, most of them to gather information – the head of the Navy’s General Staff, Vice Admiral Henrique Gouveia e Melo, confirmed the spying on the cables on March 16. A scenario that puts not only the Portuguese authorities, but those around the world, on alert: Portugal is (or will be) connected to 14 submarine cables, including the largest in the world.

A technology that accounts for almost 100% of the communications made worldwide. This means that the networks we use for work, at home or in the office, many of the communications via WhatsApp or other social networks, and major financial transactions are dependent on what passes through these cables. And a large part of these communications pass through our Exclusive Economic Zone: about 10% to 15% of the cables of the entire planet pass through this area. At the same time, ANACOM explains that it is the undersea cables that ensure practically 100% of Portugal’s connections to the rest of the world, a relationship that should intensify with the arrival of 5G (and then 6G), according to the Communications Regulatory Authority.

The threat lurking in the sea of Portugal: sabotage of submarine cables would be a catastrophe

International relations specialist Sabrina Medeiros, who prepared the report “Submarine cables and cyber security in the Atlantic” for the Ministry of Defense, explains to CNN Portugal that this is an issue that has emerged in recent times, with Portugal appearing as a crucial strategic partner for the whole world. Not only does it have the cables coming to it, but several others that connect Europe to the United States also pass through its Exclusive Economic Zone. “The cables have always been a critical infrastructure, but not much attention was paid to them until digitalization,” he notes, explaining the dimension of an attack: “An attack on an oil platform only hits the platform or the production base. An attack on a critical infrastructure like a submarine cable can hit other infrastructures in a chain. There is a domino effect, which exists because of digitalization.”

The threat lurking in the sea of Portugal: sabotage of submarine cables would be a catastrophe

This means the possible disruption of connections such as the Internet, but also its consequences. Today, trillions of euros are flowing through submarine cables every day. In the extreme, an interruption of these connections could cause a serious economic crisis, corrupting thousands of transactions that are made every minute.

The Director of Cybersecurity at agap2IT, a Portuguese company that operates in the area of Information Systems, assures CNN Portugal that a cable break does not automatically mean that the Internet connection will be cut. Marcelo Martins says that there are security mechanisms that can be activated in this scenario, allowing connections to continue, as long as the cable problem is not too serious. “We are not totally without Internet, there are contingencies. The plan starts from the premise that there are other ways to get the information, and satellites are one of those ways. The information from Waze, for example, doesn’t come via submarine cable,” explains the computer engineer. And the same happens when we use the mobile data from our cell phones.

Workers install the SEA-ME-WE 5 high-speed undersea cable in France (Boris Horvat/Getty Images)
Workers install the SEA-ME-WE 5 high-speed undersea cable in France (Boris Horvat/Getty Images)

Even so, if the cutting of cables is more widespread, there is no turning ba

ck: “You may stop having Internet and seriously affect services, because the great volume of information comes from undersea cables. An attack like this would be a catastrophe, we would very quickly turn a nation deaf and dumb, because it wouldn’t be able to receive or send data”, adds Marcelo Martins, reminding that there are companies that operate with a large digital dimension, including in transactions.

“If that company doesn’t have a contingency it is completely worthless,” concludes the expert from agap2IT, which works precisely in the market of computer and cyber assistance to companies.

Exactly what data is involved?

Large global companies are responsible for the almost 400 submarine cables that exist around the world. In Portugal, the most common operators are Altice and Vodafone, but Google or Meta also have connections here. It is through these last two that many email communications or applications like WhatsApp or Facebook arrive almost instantaneously.

Alcatel Submarine Networks is the largest submarine cable factory in the world (Denis Charlet/Getty Images)
Alcatel Submarine Networks is the largest submarine cable factory in the world (Denis Charlet/Getty Images)

“A cable cut that is Meta’s cuts the basic operation and even the television service that comes through fiber optics,” explains Marcelo Martins, adding that it takes “courage” to go ahead with a large-scale sabotage, since the repercussions could be too difficult to control in a global economy.

All this information is operated by “data ports,” usually associated with the installation of data centers or connection hubs. Together they make data platforms to process and treat them. In Portugal this type of stations are present in places like Sines or Carcavelos.

Europe knows the problem but is not moving forward with the solution
The issue of territorial protection of submarine cables that reach Portugal is the responsibility of Portugal, but the problem is European. Sabrina Medeiros recalls that the discussion to create a system that can defend and act in case of ruptures has been discussed in the European Parliament for several years, but nothing has been done.

Part of an undersea cable (Stefan Sauer/Getty Images)
Part of an undersea cable (Stefan Sauer/Getty Images)

“There is a 2008 directive that establishes a compromise on critical energy and transport infrastructures. We think of transportation as goods and people, but we don’t have an understanding of data transportation,” warns the professor from Universidade Lusófona. In the meantime, new rules have been approved for the protection of critical infrastructures in the community space, but the term “submarine cables” does not appear once.

And that data includes money, a lot of it, but also the data of millions of people. It is “hundreds of gigabytes per second in each undersea cable,” Sabrina Medeiros points out. Data from WhatsApp, from Facebook, from our email, from everything.

In Portugal this data arrives through various routes, such as Carcavelos or Sines. That’s where the centers that will process the data received are located. “They are places with surveillance, a large security structure, with barbed wire on the wall and well protected,” notes the specialist, who has already visited some of these sites in Portugal.

But proof that this was a subject already being thought about is in a report from 2021, even before the war. Maritime security expert Christian Bueger warned that “undersea communication cables are the critical infrastructure of the digital age. The Dane recalled that “99% of transacted communication” was carried out by that route, including financial transactions, emails or voice messages, which are transported by fiber optics.

“The global submarine cable network is a critical infrastructure that is not receiving the attention it deserves. We argue that cable security is a governing matter of international security now and in the future,” the document reads.

The same Christian Bueger has again published a report, this time with the seal of the European Commission, and with the war going on. It is there that the specialist highlights Portugal among the countries that should have “increased concerns” in this matter, and should review their security strategies. “In countries like France and Portugal the security of submarine cables is an essential issue for naval forces,” he says, noting that both countries have documented a “high state of alert” for the scenario.

CNN Portugal contacted the Ministry of Defense to find out what kind of measures have been taken to respond to the warnings coming from Brussels, but did not receive any response by the time this article was published.

Internationally, and as Sabrina Medeiros underlined in her work for the Ministry of Defense, there are several agreements and conventions that can encompass the protection of submarine cables, but there is a legal vacuum on what to do. The Convention for the Protection of Undersea Cables dates back to the 19th century, not responding to current problems, while the Tallinn Manual, an academic document that regulates international law in the resolution of cyber conflicts, does not specifically address this issue.

And Portugal, is it prepared?

First of all, there is one issue. Portugal, which is a relatively small country, even on a European scale, has to defend one of the largest maritime territories in the area. Sabrina Medeiros points out that it is necessary to understand the “extent and legal nature of Portugal’s responsibility” in this matter, especially since Brexit has brought greater responsibilities to the Iberian Peninsula.

“It’s a small territory, but with a level of responsibility for all the data traffic and money flows in Europe that is totally disproportionate,” she reiterates, explaining that on the Atlantic front there has become a great dependence on Portugal and Spain.

Hence the importance of creating interoperability between the Member States of the European Union, so that there can be an effective role in monitoring and, if necessary, in repairing any damage. This is because “Portugal alone may not be able to act,” adds Sabrina Medeiros, who points out that the responsibility can never be only the Portuguese Ministry of Defense, but all European authorities.

Despite the absence of full coordination, there are authorities responsible for dealing with an eventual case of sabotage, and they also keep a permanent watch on the coast, as well as the data. On the one hand, there is the Navy, which has already reported several situations where Russian ships are present off the Portuguese coast, including that episode with the NRP Mondego, where the sailors refused to carry out the mission. On the data side is the National Cybersecurity Center, which has the responsibility of managing what is happening to companies and all users.

Sabrina Medeiros recalls that there is a National Cybersecurity Strategy, but also regrets that references to undersea cables are practically non-existent. According to the document that foresees actions between 2019 and 2023, only once is this type of infrastructure mentioned. “There is a common commitment in relation to cybersecurity responses, but nothing is foreseen about the submarine market,” warns the specialist, alerting that it would be positive if the next strategy already encompassed more information on this matter.

Foreign ships can sail in Portuguese waters, but they must ask permission to do so. Sabrina Medeiros has no doubts: “The presence of Russian ships implies a political position of risk and threat,” not least because Portugal supports Ukraine. “We have to remember that the submarine cable problem is transnational,” she says.

“When we talk about a nine-thousand-kilometer infrastructure, there are no conditions for assigning responsibility in a simple way. And this takes on a whole other relevance in a war context. I can’t think of any other instrument so critical that is under direct threat, there is no other means of infrastructure so vulnerable, so susceptible to sabotage,” stresses the university professor, recalling the trillions of euros and the many data that pass through the undersea cables every day.

What if this sabotage exists on a large scale? “If it is the whole cable, it would be a tragedy in all parameters. A tragedy that even implies secondary tragedies and human tragedies,” says Sabrina Medeiros, explaining that, in the limit, we are talking about impacts on hospital infrastructures and others, which need the transaction of crucial data to maintain regular operation.

Marcelo Martins says that to solve the problem there is an initial difficulty: identifying the breaking point in the cable. It is one thing for one of the various filaments of the cable to be damaged – then the repair can be done relatively easily, but a total cut in the cable is very different. “The first difficulty is finding the break. Then, through a deep-water operation, you have to maintain it and reconnect the fiber. It’s always a delicate process, imagine in deep sea and deep water,” he points out.

In a more serious case, the expert even talks about the need for “days to re-establish full connection,” not least because here there is a novelty effect, since until now the authorities have not been used to dealing with total cable breaks.

And this is a subject that has also received internal attention. Expresso wrote that the reason for the intervention of the Security Intelligence Service (SIS) in the case of the computer taken by Frederico Pinheiro from the Ministry of Infrastructure was precisely because of the possibility that the device had sensitive information on this subject.

“We initially thought that the classified information contained in Frederico Pinheiro’s computer could be linked to the fiber optic cables, which are critical infrastructures and recurrent targets for sabotage and espionage. And we were afraid that more TAP data could be exposed,” a source connected to the case told the weekly newspaper.

Workers celebrate the installation of the 2Africa submarine cable, the largest in the world, in Barcelona (David Olle/Getty Images)
Workers celebrate the installation of the 2Africa submarine cable, the largest in the world, in Barcelona (David Olle/Getty Images)

Instead of destruction, theft?

The most obvious scenario of an enemy action is the destruction of the submarine cables. It will be easier and cause great immediate damage in the affected countries. But what if those who want to attack the cables have another intention? What if they intend to steal the data passing through them?

So far there have been no indications of any sabotage of the submarine cables that pass through Portugal, but Sabrina Medeiros reminds us that espionage is one of the weapons that can be used in a war context. “Even if you can’t get the data, it’s still dangerous,” she warns. For now, we’re left with threats and fear, but the specialist in International Relations warns that cases like the destruction of the Nord Stream gas pipeline are signs that we should pay attention to what is happening on the bottom of the ocean.

Around the same time, two episodes occurred that put the authorities on alert: undersea cables were cut near the Faroe Islands, leaving the archipelago without Internet access. The same thing happened in the south of France, where submarine cables connecting Marseille to Lyon, Milan and Barcelona were cut. The operator responsible for managing the network immediately spoke of “malicious acts” that took hours to resolve.

Accidents do happen. In Indonesia, sharks have been seen gnawing on undersea cables more than once, which even prompted Google to lay aramid [a very strong synthetic fiber used, for example, to make bulletproof vests]. In Taiwan, in February this year, an accident damaged two cables, leaving the island with reduced Internet speed for more than two months.

Despite the inherent risks, Marcelo Martins emphasizes that he is not aware of any technology that is capable of stealing data through undersea cables, although a “direct interference in the connection can make some kind of interception of the information circulating.

The cables arriving in Portugal

If today’s technology is cutting edge, submarine cables are much older than you might think. It was in 1855 that the first project for Portugal was mentioned, with the United States proposing the creation of a telegraphic cable between mainland Portugal and its territory, passing through the Azores archipelago, as told in the work “Dates and Facts of the Submarine Cable in Portugal”, by the Portuguese Communications Foundation.

Currently, there are 12 active cables connected to Portugal, with two others on the way, one of which will start operating in 2024. It is through Carcavelos that 2Africa will pass, the longest undersea cable in the world, with 45,000 kilometers and passing through 33 countries, most of which are in Africa, and which is scheduled for completion by the end of this year. This cable will be operated by Meta, Vodafone and other operators, serving largely as a base for WhatsApp, Facebook or Instagram communications in the countries where it is installed.

António Costa at the announcement of the Equiano submarine cable, connecting Europe to Africa (Horacio Villalobos/Getty Images)
António Costa at the announcement of the Equiano submarine cable, connecting Europe to Africa (Horacio Villalobos/Getty Images)

But if this is where the longest cable in the world passes, it is also where one of the smallest passes. The BUGIO is only 73 kilometers long and connects Carcavelos to Sesimbra, having been built in 1996. In charge of Altice, it is probably nearing the end of its operation, since these infrastructures have a useful life span of around 25 years.

In May 2022, it was Google’s turn to deliver a cable to Portugal. The Equiano, with about 15 thousand kilometers, is an investment by the North American company to connect Europe and Africa. It has a capacity of 144 terabytes per second, 20 times more than the cable that was available on the West African coast.

But if this is where the longest cable in the world passes, it is also where one of the smallest passes. The BUGIO is only 73 kilometers long and connects Carcavelos to Sesimbra, having been built in 1996. In charge of Altice, it is probably nearing the end of its operation, since these infrastructures have a useful life span of around 25 years.

In May 2022, it was Google’s turn to deliver a cable to Portugal. The Equiano, with about 15 thousand kilometers, is an investment by the North American company to connect Europe and Africa. It has a capacity of 144 terabytes per second, 20 times more than the cable that was available on the West African coast.

Submarine cables with connection to Portugal

Name

Year

Length

Operators

Countries

Entering Portugal

2Africa

2023

45 thousand kilometers

Meta, Vodafone and others

33 countries on three continents

Carcavelos

Africa Coast to Europe (ACE)

2012

17 thousand kilometers

Orange and others

19 countries on two continents

Carcavelos

Azores Fiber Optic System (AFOS)

1998

1,100 quilómetros

Altice

Um

Grupos Ocidental e Central dos Açores

BUGIO

1996

73 quilómetros

Altice

Um

Carcavelos e Sesimbra

CAM Ring

2003

1,120 quilómetros

Altice

Um

Porto Santo, Funchal e Ponta Delgada

Columbus-III Azores Portugal

1999

Sem informação

Altice

Um

Carcavelos e Ponta Delgada

Continente-Madeira

2000

1,179 quilómetros

Altice

Um

Carcavelos e Funchal

EllaLink

2021

6,200 quilómetros

EllaLink

Quatro

Funchal e Sines

Equiano

2023

15 mil quilómetros

Google

Seis em dois continentes

Sesimbra

Europe India Gateway (EIG)

2011

15 mil quilómetros

Altice, Vodafone e outros

Dez em três continentes

Sesimbra

Flores-Corvo Cable System

2014

685 quilómetros

Viatel

Um

Corvo, Faial, Flores e Graciosa

Main One

2010

7,000 quilómetros

MainOne

Cinco em dois continentes

Seixal

Medusa Submarine Cable System

2024

8,760 quilómetros

AFRIX Telecom

Dez em dois continentes

Carcavelos e Sines

Olisipo

2024

110 quilómetros

EllaLink

Um

Carcavelos e Sines

Sagres

1998

302 quilómetros

Altice

Um

Burgau e Sesimbra

SAT-3/WASC

2022

14.350

Altice, Vodafone e outros

Onze em dois continentes

Sesimbra

SeaMeWe-3

1999

39 mil quilómetros

Altice, Vodafone e outros

30 countries em quatro continentes

Sesimbra

Tata TGN-Western Europe

2002

3,578 quilómetros

Tata Communications

Três

Seixal

West Africa Cable Systems (WACS)

2012

14,530 quilómetros

Altice, Vodafone e outros

12 em dois continentes

Seixal

Fonte: Submarine Cable Map

Voltando no tempo, o primeiro cabo submarino em Portugal was inaugurated in 1870. It served as a troca for telegrams between the rei D. Luís and the rainha Vitória, of Inglaterra, but also allowed Portugal to travel to countries such as India.

Fonte: Submarine Cable Map

Voltando no tempo, o primeiro cabo submarino em Portugal was inaugurated in 1870. It served as a troca for telegrams between the rei D. Luís and the rainha Vitória, of Inglaterra, but also allowed Portugal to travel to countries such as India.

Sample of a submarine cable that connected the UK to Germany in 1866 (Getty Images)
Sample of a submarine cable that connected the UK to Germany in 1866 (Getty Images)

When the lines broke

It was in 2008 that an oversight by a ship attempting to sail in bad weather left 75 million people with limited or even no Internet access, impacting business and communications (telephone and electronic) across the Middle East and much of Asia, including in India or Dubai.

“People downloading music and movies will affect businesses that have more important things to do,” Egypt’s government said at the time.

Today, 15 years later, undersea cables are even more important, so a sabotage or a major accident could jeopardize many more communications.

You see, digital communication is completely different: incomparably more money and information circulates.

Related articles

Deaths and serious injuries increased in the 1st quarter of the year

Almost 8,000 accidents, which caused 103 deaths and 513 serious injuries, were recorded in the first three months...

Paris2024: Medal favorite label doesn’t bother world champion Iúri Leitão

The label of 'favorite' attached to Portuguese cyclist Iúri Leitão, the omnium world champion, doesn't bother the 'ace'...

Military patrols Santa Luzia mountain range to prevent fires

Army soldiers from the Póvoa do Varzim Services School will monitor the Serra de Santa Luzia, in Viana...

Work on the GNR school in Portalegre awaits approval from the Court of Auditors

The Secretary of State for Internal Administration announced today that the project for the new GNR training center...