Red Sea Chaos Exposes New Vulnerability: the Internet

Big disruptions reported overseas because vital undersea cables were cut
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 4, 2024 12:37 PM CST
Red Sea Chaos Exposes New Vulnerability: the Internet
This satellite image shows the Belize-flagged ship Rubymar in the Red Sea on March 1 after being attacked by Yemen's Houthi rebels. It later sank.   (Maxar Technologies via AP)

Lots of people overseas on Monday are getting a reminder that our digital world is heavily dependent on the not-so-digital infrastructure of giant undersea cables. Roughly 25% of internet traffic between Asia and Europe, as well as in the Middle East, has been disrupted because cables belonging to four major telecoms in the Red Sea were "cut," reports CNN. Hong Kong's HGC Global Communications in particular said in a statement it was scrambling to reroute internet traffic for its customers.

  • Sabotage? It's not clear how the cables were "cut"—whether it was deliberate or accidental—or if deliberate, who might be responsible, per CNN. But the Red Sea is a current hot spot because of attacks by Houthi militants on international cargo ships. The Houthis, however, insist they are not responsible.
  • Context: The Wall Street Journal calls the waterway "one of the internet's deepest vulnerabilities" because of a key stat: "Most internet traffic between Europe and East Asia runs through undersea cables that funnel into the narrow strait at the southern end of the Red Sea." The Guardian estimates that 17% of the world's internet traffic is carried under the sea. A ship that drops anchor in the wrong spot can cause chaos, and earthquakes also can wreak havoc.

  • Last month: In late February, three damaged Red Sea cables disrupted service in India, Pakistan, and East Africa, notes the Journal. It's not clear what happened, but some blame the cargo ship Rubymar, which was abandoned after a Houthi attack and later sank. The cables were being repaired, but the ongoing conflict complicates things.
  • A warning: Last month, Yemen explicitly warned that the Houthis might try to sabotage the cables, after a Telegram channel linked to the group posted a map of undersea cable routes, notes Business Insider.
  • No easy task: However, the BBC notes that the Houthis may not have the capability to deliberately damage the cables, which lie hundreds of feet below the surface of the ocean, well beyond the reach of divers. Such sabotage would require a deep-sea submersible, though the story notes the Houthis could theoretically get help from ally Iran.
(More Red Sea stories.)

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