Subsea cables the new cyber threat

In a major speech this week presenting his National Security Strategy, US President Donald Trump named China and Russia as competitors and “revisionist powers”.

No real surprises there, although the report’s rhetoric on Russian election interference was strong, China was fingered more as a strategic economic threat.

The US, of course, is Australia’s major defence ally, so where the US sees a threat, naturally enough this country does too. Since World War II, Russia has always been at least something of a threat and Australia is beginning to acknowledge that China is emerging as a potential threat.

Cable ties: The tyranny of distance puts an extra spotlight on undersea cables

Indeed, Australia actually beat the US to the punch on China in the first Foreign Policy White Paper in 14 years, released in November after 12 months work by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

The paper was more forthright than many expected and, Australia being a net exporter to China and geographically closer than the US, the Turnbull government characterized the potential China threat more as a Defence issue.

“The United States has been the dominant power in our region throughout Australia’s post-World War II history. Today, China is challenging America’s position,” the normally ultra-cautious DFAT dared to note.

It adding that “China’s power and influence are growing to match, and in some cases exceed, that of the United States arguing China’s growing power is changing the region “in ways without precedent in Australia’s modern history.”

The antecedents of Australia’s firming stance can be seen further back in the 2016 Defence White Paper, which triggered the Turnbull government to launch the $90 billion Naval Shipbuilding Plan, a large part of which is a major technology upgrade for the Australian navy.

As one senior naval officer told “It’s the modern equivalent of the shift from sail to steam.”

Regarding China, it’s largely about the artificial island building activities in the South China Sea, through which the majority of Australia’s exports travel to China, Japan and South Korea. So it is about trade, but also about defence – as Trump characterised them, they are intertwined.

And this is where China has taken issue with Australia, attacking Malcolm Turnbull in its state-run press and pouring scorn on Australia, claiming that we do not have a dog in the fight.

Still, Australia remains small beer and the chance of a “hot war” in North Korea – notwithstanding Trump’s rhetoric – remains remote for now.

For now, the real action is in the cyber-warfare space and the jostling is already well underway: Russian election hacking, reports of buildings full of Chinese military hacking teams and on it goes.

Australia has dutifully played its part, with the government announcing has any number of cyber defence initiatives including assistant ministers, cyber ambassadors and the Australian Cyber Security Centre.

This flurry of activity earned Australia the No 2 spot in a recent ranking of regional countries cyber defence capabilities by defence think tank the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. But it admitted that many of the roles needed “clarifiying”.

Still, the rubber – or at least the cable – really hits the road when it comes to the actual hardware that carries all gazillions of data signals that hackers are trying to intercept and interfere with around the world.

Quite suddenly, it seems, attention has zeroed in on the big fat undersea cables that connect the various continents and islands and what might happen if a hostile force decided to target them.

There has been a flurry of recent news reports about China targeting Japan and Taiwan’s undersea cables and, at the weekend, quite open concern from the UK’s military establishment about Russia doing same.

Down under where the tyranny of distance, while not stopping the cavalier, remains is something of a cultural thematic – so any threat to those things that help to bridge that distance looms extremely large.

These days there are a number of cables that connect Australia with various parts of the world and a handful of smaller players including Optus’ parent Singtel. But when it comes to infrastructure-based telecommunications, Telstra remains king of the heap.

In fact, by dint of Telstra’s dotcom era deal with then Hong Kong Telecom, the company now owns about 30 per cent of the undersea cables in the Asia-Pacific, quite an unsung win for heel-dragging corporate Australia in Asia. It is quite an asset, and suddenly quite a worry also.

Aware of the escalating interest in the topic, Telstra was reticent to say much beyond: “We monitor our subsea cables from several operations centres and work closely with all necessary Australian and international parties to secure and maintain our cable assets.”

But the company helpfully noted that an executive in charge of Telstra cables wrote piece precisely in this topic on the company’s website earlier this year.

“Telstra operates the largest and most diverse subsea cable network in Asia Pacific, and we are constantly extending and enhancing this network to give our customers added resiliency should issues arise on a particular cable,” International Operations & Services and Managing Director, North East Asia – Executive Director Darrin Webb wrote.

“This work has included building an overland cable in Taiwan, which avoids the earthquake prone Luzon Strait, and a highly resilient fibre based network in South Korea.

“Protecting this infrastructure is a top priority for us, but a number of hazards in the area mean this isn’t always an easy task – luckily we have one of the world’s best team dedicated to meeting these challenges head on.” also understands that there are laws that apply in Australian waters and cable protection zones for landing points in Australia.

The pointy end of this is that increasingly there is recognition amongst global operators that there is a need to improve the scope of international conventions to reflect the importance of subsea cables.

It’s a bit like the soft spot that no one wanted to mention but shit, now it’s out, well we can talk about it – but just how does anyone protect such assets? That rapidly emerging technology: underwater drones, or unmanned underwater vessels (UUV) offers both an opportunity and a threat.

This one’s got a long way to run and will be occupying some very smart technology minds for years to come, so stay tuned.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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