As more data comes in, it is increasingly apparent that the great Submarine Cable Crisis of 2008 was another false alarm. Yet again a large chunk of the blogosphere went crazy over a non-event. A follow-up to this post of 7 February.
I. “Conspiracy Theories Behind Those Cut Undersea Cables“, Ben Worthen, Blog of the Wall Street Journal (6 February 2008)
Reports that a fifth undersea communications cable in the Middle East has been damaged in less than a week – further compromising Internet access in countries there, and knocking Iran off the grid entirely – are triggering wild conspiracy theories about who’s at fault, from Islamic extremists to the CIA. But BizTech readers can proceed with global business as planned: the reports aren’t true.
So says Stephan Beckert, research director at TeleGeography, who studies these cables for a living. … Beckert tells the Business Technology Blog that he hasn’t heard anything about a fifth cable from his sources in the industry and that the newspaper that reported the outage, the Khaleej Times in the United Arab Emirates, seems to have double counted two of the cables and missed a fourth one entirely. Beckert also tells us that one of the cut cables wasn’t cut at all – it’s down because of a power outage. And while Iran is experiencing Internet slowdowns just like the rest of the Middle East, it isn’t off line.
Beckert says that the most likely explanation is that a fishing boat damaged the cables by catching them in its net or that a ship accidentally cut them with its anchor – these are responsible for 65% and 18% of cable problems respectively. The first two cables were only 400 yards apart, suggesting that they were damaged in the same incident. “It might have been sharks with laser beams on their heads but I’m guessing it’s not,” says Beckert. Viewed this way, it’s two incidents in a week, which is higher than average but not unusual – last year their were 50 damaged cables in the Atlantic alone.
II. Disrupting the Internet?, John Robb, Global Guerrillas (4 February 2008) — Robb uses this incident to remind us of the vulnerable nature of our critical infrastructure.
III. “Of cables and conspiracies“, Economist (7 February 2008). Esp. note the second paragraph below, highlighting an often overlooked aspect of our western infrastructure systems: they improve in robustness of time, as weaknesses are identified and addressed.
It may be rare for several cables to go down in a week, but it can happen. Global Marine Systems, a firm that repairs marine cables, says more than 50 cables were cut or damaged in the Atlantic last year; big oceans are criss-crossed by so many cables that a single break has little impact. What was unusual about the damage in the Suez Canal was that it took place at a point where two continents’ traffic is borne along only three cables.
More are being laid. For the moment, there is only one fair conclusion: the internet is vulnerable, in places, but getting more robust.
IV. Wikipedia provided some of the best and faster all-around coverage, linking to new reports quite quickly and sorting the wheat from the chaff.
V. For *very* detailed technical analysis of this event by a telecom expert see the blog of Renesys Corporation: post #1, post #2, and post #3. No discussion of conspiracies or geopolitics. (Hat tip to Opposed System Design).
VI. Update and final resolution of the crisis: “UAE releases one of the ships impounded for cable damage“, indiatimes (12 April 2008) — Excerpt
The UAE authorities have released one of the two ships allegedly responsible for causing damage to an undersea cable network of Flag Telecom that had resulted in disruption of Internet services across India for two weeks. The ship was released after a Korean shipping company, which owns it, paid huge compensation to Flag Telecom, a subsidiary of Reliance Globalcom, as damage, a newspaper reported on Saturday.
The two ships — MV Hounslow and MT Ann — were impounded on February 19 when they reached Dubai shores for allegedly damaging the cable network in February. The action was taken after Reliance Globalcom provided details of the ships by studying the satellite images of the ship movements around the area of undersea cable damage off the northern coast of Egypt and the UAE.
Abdul Jaleel Mahdi, Deputy Director of CID of Dubai Police, told the daily that one of the impounded ships, belonging to a Korean shipping company, was released after payment of huge compensation to Flag Telecom. During police interrogation, an official of the Korean ship admitted that the vessel was passing through the area and agreed to pay USD 60,000 as damages, the report said.
The second ship, which belongs to an Iraqi company, is still in the custody of Dubai Police and the Coast Guards, a police source was quoted as saying by the daily.
The original story mentioned is “Internet cable damage: two ships impounded“, The Hindu (7 April 2008).
Lessons learned for when we watch real-time news (with changes suggested by Riprock in the Comment)
- Wikipedia and the major media should be the first places to look. Wikipedia is imo valuable as a source of links, not analysis. The major media, of course, have their own biases.
- Valuable insights and data can be found on the fringes, but this requires more work to find and thought to evaluate.
- Good timely data is out there, but often requires some digging. Treat blogger speculation lightly.
- Look for quotes from relevant professionals about the typical nature, frequency, and magnitude of similar events. Find sites of companies that involved in this business, whose experts might comment on current events.
- “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.” Carl Sagan popularized this saying of Marcello Truzzi, a simplification of an insight by David Hume. It is a powerful mental tool to help us cut through the noise.
Other posts about the Internet: does it make us smarter or dumber?
- Will Israel commit suicide? More rumors of a strike at Iran. (22 December 2007)
- Three blind men examine the Iraq Elephant (6 February 2008)
- Cable Cut Fever grips the conspiracy-hungry fringes of the web (7 February 2008)
- Resolution of the Great Submarine Cable Crisis — and some lessons learned (8 February 2008)
- What do blogs do for America? (26 February)
- The oddity of reports about the Iraq War (13 March 2008)
- Will we bomb Iran, now that Admiral Fallon is gone? (17 March 2008)
- More post-Fallon overheating: “6 signs the US may be headed for war in Iran” (18 March 2008)
- Euphoria about the Bakken Formation (10 April 2008)
- The Internet makes us dumber: the Bakken euphoria, a case study (15 April 2008)