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Satellites and sub-sea cables: A growing vulnerability in the cyber domain | RiskMap 2020

Satellites and sub-sea cables

A growing vulnerability in the cyber domain

If data is the new oil, subsea cables and satellites are the tankers and pipelines enabling its vital flow across the world. As governments battle for supremacy in the technological arena, private sector actors are increasingly establishing control over the global telecommunication infrastructure, and more cyber-attacks are impacting the internet’s backbone. In 2020, we’re likely to see more infrastructure disruption.

While regulators across the world have been busy introducing legislation to control the flow of data, the foundations of the internet are rapidly changing ownership. In 2010, content providers accounted for less than 10% of the total subsea cable internet capacity, in 2018, they accounted for more than 40%. Together, Google, Microsoft and Amazon own over 50% of subsea cables around the world.

The shape of the global internet is inherently subject to geopolitical whims. Subsea cables, with over 90% of all internet traffic transiting through, them, are fundamentally strategic. Their privatisation is likely to pose a whole new set of challenges in an increasingly confrontational sector.

In the last few years, the internet backbone itself has been the target of capable state threat actors. The NSA and GCHQ have allegedly run long-term wiretapping programmes across the world to intercept data going through subsea cables. Russian and Iranian intelligence actors have hit global satellite systems for command and control, espionage and disruption.

The global satellite networks on which we all rely for navigation, telecommunication and increasingly in some parts of the world, the internet has grown dramatically since the 1960s. And since the mid-2010s, the private sector has taken the lead in operating them. This will further expand in 2020 and beyond as Amazon, Space X, Facebook and One Web all launch their own satellite constellations.

The public ownership of these goods has typically meant that resilience to disruption and political weight were inbuilt. With private ownership, it is less likely businesses running this infrastructure will have the same resources to build and operate resilient global infrastructure networks or deal with state adversaries on a more proactive basis.



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