The World of International Organizations

U.N. group sees risk to underwater cables

Divers repair an undersea cable at the U.S. Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility (AN/National Museum of the U.S. Navy)

When an underwater cable became severed in the South Pacific last month, Tonga lost all internet access for nearly two weeks, in an incident that illustrates some of the risks that a U.N. expert group is examining.

Data worth an estimated US$10 trillion in economic activity — twice the GDP of Japan, the world’s third biggest economy — moves through underwater cables every day, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, or UNODC.

During Tonga’s blackout, a small satellite service provided slow and limited internet access. Businesses could not take orders online. Relatives abroad were unable to send money transfers. The cause of the cut cable, which connects the Polynesian nation to Fiji, was publicly unknown.

It is these types of risks that an expert group with UNODC examined at a meeting in Sri Lanka at the end of January. Sri Lanka’s government plans to host more such talks in March. “The bulk of these cables, on which we are so critically reliant, are merely the size of a garden hose and are just lying, unguarded, on the sea floor,” UNODC said in a statement.

“Given the dependence of states on such cables for everything from personnel management to communication to fiscal matters to military and security operations,” the United Nations agency said, “it is also a surprise to many that almost all of the global network of submarine cables is privately owned and maintained.”

Tonga’s cable, built with aid from the Asian Development Bank and World Bank, may seem old-school in an era of satellites and WiFi. But it was only put into use in 2013. Cables crisscrossing the ocean depths are cheaper and faster with data than satellites. Experts worry they can easily break, however, or be easily located — and sabotaged.

Such worries are not new. The International Cable Protection Committee, or ICPC, recently marked six decades of working to protect submarine cables worldwide. But the risks with the cables are taking on added importance in the 21st century’s digital-dependent economy.

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