Cable Cut Fever grips the conspiracy-hungry fringes of the web

Important news!  Hot!  Significant!  Just off the presses, posted at hundreds of sites on the Internet…

Connecting The Many Undersea Cut Cable Dots“, by Richard Sauder, NPC Intelligence Associates (4 February 2008).

The last week has seen a spate of unexplained, cut, undersea communications cables that has severely disrupted communications in many countries in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia.  As I shall show, the total numbers of cut cables remain in question, but likely number as many as eight, and maybe nine or more.

They continue with some alarming and wildly speculative theories about this act of techno-terrorism.  Who did and why?  Established news media and bloggers have also reported these puzzling events.

Conspiracy theorists ponder ongoing web outage“, The Times (6 February 2008):  “Three undersea cables carrying vital web traffic were cut within four days last week, and no one yet knows why.”

Four cable ‘cuts’ in a week: Conspiracy nuts light up the phones“, Richard Koman, ZDnet (6 February 2008)

Fortunately there is usually at least one voice of reason amidst the cacophony of the web (from whom I borrowed this title).  Perhaps nothing out of the ordinary has happened.  Note that Mr. Singel actually consulted a relevant expert.

Cable Cut Fever Grips the Web“, Ryan Singel, Wired Blog Network (6 February 2008)

Stefan Beckert of TeleGeography Research says it’s all a bit much.  “I’m much more worried about terrorists blowing up people than cables,” Beckert said. “If you cut a cable, all you are doing is inconveniencing a lot of people.”

Only the first two cuts had any serious impact on the internet, says Beckert. Those cables near Alexandria, Egypt account for 76 percent of the capacity through the Suez canal — connecting Europe with the Middle East, North Africa and the India sub-continent.

Once those failures sensitized a conspiracy-happy net, it was natural that other cable failures would be found to feed the frenzy, because they occur all the time.

“Cable cuts happen on average once every three days,” Beckert said. There are 25 large ships that do nothing but fix cable cuts and bends, Beckert adds.  While any severed cable is a “cut” in the parlance of telecom, most often they’re the result of cables rubbing against sea floor rocks, eventually cutting through the copper shielding and exposing the thin fiber optics inside.

Normally, netizens have no idea when there are cable cuts since large providers instantly re-route communications through other cables.  “These outages don’t usually affect end users,” Beckert said. “For example, Verizon doesn’t just have one link across the Atlantic, they have seven, eight or nine they can route capacity on.”

Only time will tell what actually happened.  However, this illustrates an important point:

The Internet can make us collectively smarter and faster-reacting.  It can just as easily make us dumber.

The increasingly large “net” of events captured by the global news media requires a harsh filter to separate the signal from the noise.  Unless we mentally adapt, over time we will increasingly be overloaded and unable to see the valuable nuggets of gold amidst the dirt.

Worse, noise can confirm our preconceptions.  This is the cognitive error know as “confirmation bias.”  We grab data that confirms our beliefs — even if spurious or noise — and filter out that which contradicts our beliefs.  In this way even we can impose a pattern even on noise — a random stream of everyday events.

This is even more clearly seen on single-issue web sites, like The Oil Drum or those of warbloggers.  They act as data miners.  Every day they find a dozen random events that fit their beliefs, which get posted.  Those that contradict their biases are discarded.  It is a positive feedback cycle with unpleasant results on one’s connection to reality.

For more on this see Resolution of the Great Submarine Cable Crisis — and some lessons learned.

Please share your comments by posting below (brief and relevant, please), or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

Other posts about the Internet:  does it make us smarter or dumber?

  1. Will Israel commit suicide? More rumors of a strike at Iran.  (22 December 2007)
  2. Three blind men examine the Iraq Elephant  (6 February 2008)
  3. Cable Cut Fever grips the conspiracy-hungry fringes of the web  (7 February 2008)
  4. Resolution of the Great Submarine Cable Crisis — and some lessons learned  (8 February 2008)
  5. What do blogs do for America?  (26 February)
  6. The oddity of reports about the Iraq War  (13 March 2008)
  7. Will we bomb Iran, now that Admiral Fallon is gone?  (17 March 2008)
  8. More post-Fallon overheating: “6 signs the US may be headed for war in Iran”  (18 March 2008)
  9. Euphoria about the Bakken Formation  (10 April 2008)
  10. The Internet makes us dumber: the Bakken euphoria, a case study  (15 April 2008)

8 thoughts on “Cable Cut Fever grips the conspiracy-hungry fringes of the web

  1. In terms of a decision loop, there is nothing to distinguish truthful information from false information – they are not qualitatively different in the time that the information is collected and disseminated. That is true of an intelligence-collecting platform just as it is the Internet.

  2. Yes, in an abstract sense. In practice much of the noise can be filtered out with a combination of skepticism and simple fact-checking. In the 1980’s was both a gull and and transmitter of urban legends. Eventually I learned to check Snopes before believing and passing on really good stories.

    Twenty seconds with Snopes or Google can filter out a large fraction of noise. A healthy skepticism can probably filter out more.

  3. Snopes! I love that reference to Southern Literature. Amazing the insights you find there.

    Adrian raises a good point – Data are data, as the old saying goes, and there are two general methods for deciding whether they represent truthful or false information. The first is by comparing them to one’s existing orientation and throwing out what doesn’t fit – we call this “ideology” – and the other is by comparing the implications of the data with the developing situation. In this case, one usually changes both orientation and the data that are accepted as valid (let’s face it, when dealing with national security stuff, a lot of data is either wrong or noise).

    In this situation, there appear to be more, and more severe, mismatches with the conspiracy theory than with the natural causes theory, at least until more data become available. The point is to keep observing, keep looking for data, and keep exploring for mismatches. Only the paranoid, as the new saying goes, survive — with apologies to Andy Grove, who is not a Southerner as y’all already knew.

  4. ONe thing which annoyed me is I have a smart COLLEAGUE who was speculating it was the US because ONE router in Iran was reported down. I had to explain to him…

    a) The Jimmy Carter doesn’t cut cables when tapping them.

    b) IF we were to disrupt Iran’s internet activity, it would be 30 seconds before the bombs drop.

    Conspiracy theories are so hard to fight.

  5. Conspiracy theories are hard to fight because they provide comfort in the face of troubling random events. The idea that evil people in control caused the bad thing to happen implies the possibility that good people in control can prevent bad things from happening, which is something humanity desperately wants to believe.

  6. For you Yankees, by “southern literature” Chet Richards refers to Faulkner’s *Snopes* trilogy: The Hamlet, The Mansion, and the Town. Set in Yoknapatawpha County (Mississippi), it tells about the the beginning, rise, and dominance of the Snopes family. Good reading for folks who like gloomy books.

  7. Regardless of whether 8 or 9 undersea cables were indeed “cut” or not, it should occur to everyone that if the story is remotely accurate, the idea that a “terrorist” organization was responsible is not a serious explanation. No terrorists possess the means or information necessary to undertake such a complicated and expensive operation… only a National Intelligence service in cooperation with that Nations Navy could pull something like this off without everyone and their sisters cousin knowing about it ahead of time. This would show up in financial market speculations and odd/irregular insurance policies, which is certainly where several thousand analysts are looking if this is anything other than rumor.

    This story, like speculation related to the network intrusion/corruption of computer networks at the pentagon, requires such a huge amount of forensic labor to investigate, that maybe a year from now the specialists will decide they’re confident enough to say for certain one way or another what they believe occurred and why/how. We could all toss out speculative guesses as to why such a complicated operation might be worthwhile for this or that government to undertake, and maybe someone would guess correctly. But “terrorists”? In three different parts of the worlds shipping lanes? Very very unlikely.

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