Maybe the dolphins wanted YouTube?

Just why have so many submarine cables, the backbone of the Internet, been severed in the Middle East? And what does it say about Australia's security?

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With several undersea fibre optical cables snipped under mysterious circumstances, the global IT security community is abuzz with conspiracy theories. But what do the events of the last two weeks tell us about Australia's vulnerability to physical attacks on IT infrastructure?

No one seems to know how the cables -- connecting North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia to Europe -- were clipped. The Egyptian government dismissed initial reports a wayward ship anchor was responsible for the first two breaks. Curiously, they offered no alternative explanation of how the fibre optic connections were damaged.

When another cable was clipped on February 1 off the coast of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the rumour mill went into overdrive. Since then other cables have reportedly been cut, but all articles written along those lines carry the stench of sensationalism and inaccuracy. Slashdot.org even incorrectly reported Iran had been knocked offline completely, before posting an update.

IT security types -- a notoriously paranoid group of professionals if ever there was one -- have offered all types of explanations for the outages. From anti-semitic scenarios to claims radical Islamist separatists are trying to reduce Western influence in the region, there was a theory for everyone regardless of their political or religious views.

A popular theory is George W Bush is preparing to bomb Iran. Others say the cable cuts are designed to distract repair crews while US spooks plant fibre taps at other points on the cables.

A more plausible theory is bad weather forced ships to seek shelter in areas they wouldn't normally enter.

There were also some fairly hilarious alternative "theories" popping up. Specially trained "Zionist Neocon sharks with laser beams on their heads" were responsible, or the dolphins were bored and wanted YouTube. Perhaps the use of water-boarding as a torture technique by the US government has prompted an evolutionary response, allowing Islamic extremists to breath underwater. Equipped with a pair of tin-snips and a belief in holy war, they were responsible.

What is known is the US government -- and probably others -- operates submarines specially equipped to tap and interfere with undersea fibre optic cables. We also know this scenario reads like the first page in an information warfare playbook.

It's even become popular in fiction. In the first chapter of former US presidential advisor, counter terrorism chief and cyber-security tsar Richard A Clarke's fictional thriller Breakpoint, parties unknown sever the United States' connections to the Internet, the first step in an escalating campaign of terror. His theory is such an attack can cripple a nation's economy and its ability to wage war; cutting cables is the first stage

Dolphins, Republican sharks, jihadis with gills, the US Navy or ship anchors -- the wide-range of theories is proof no one really knows what's happening. What we do know is undersea cables expose all countries to a serious vulnerability. Any navy operating a clunky old diesel submarine with some pliers attached to it can sever fibre optic cables. That's a particularly frightening issue when you're located on a geographically isolated island like Australia.

In this podcast interview in April 2007, Clarke told me Australia is particularly vulnerable to physical attacks on Internet infrastructure. "A physical attack on cyberspace, one that tries to cut off a country from the rest of cyberspace by hitting physical connections, that's probably something that Australia is more vulnerable to than say Europe or the United States," he said. "The United States has a lot of Internet entry points into it, probably in the order of 20 major entry points, and that's a lot to take down. I think Australia's number is probably more in the order of six."

To the average person walking down the street, it doesn't seem the worst thing that could happen. We could just go back to using faxes and phones for our international communications. The problem is most of our communications are carried over the same links these days, and we don't have the redundant capacity (satellite, for example) to meet a sudden surge in demand. A bandwidth rationing regime would be introduced and a great deal of our international commerce would simply stop.

What was responsible for the cable cuts in the Middle East is anybody's guess. What we do know is Australia is acutely vulnerable to attacks on its Internet links, and that's not likely to change any time soon.

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