Sharks are no longer the only threat to undersea cables. According to cybersecurity researchers, the Russia-Ukraine war, the United States’ rising tensions with China, and insatiable data demands are driving up the risks for communication cables within the oceans.

The threats include cyberattacks and attempts to tap into the cables for surveillance purposes, Recorded Future said in a June 27 report.

“Major geopolitical developments, specifically Russia’s war against Ukraine, China’s increasing coercive actions toward, and preparations for, a potential forceful unification with Taiwan, as well as the deepening rift between Beijing and Washington, will very likely be key drivers of the near-term risk environment,” states the report, which was produced by the company’s Insikt Group threat research division.

“The relentless push for expanded bandwidth capacity has led cable system operators to embrace advanced network management systems, potentially enabling cyberattacks that exploit third-party vulnerabilities,” the group said.

Submarine cables are vital to everything from communications to military operations to global finance. The report states that the cables are responsible for almost entirely all intercontinental global internet traffic.

“Increasing reliance on internet-based connectivity for global finance, telecommunications, government decision-making, and military operations make submarine cables attractive targets for intelligence collection or sabotage,” the first key finding in the report states.

Besides hacking risks, cyber analysts have also pointed to surveillance threats.

The report states that the “growing role of Chinese state-owned enterprises as cable owners and providers has introduced rising concerns of digital surveillance amid a reshaped internet architecture.”

Recorded Future said that nation-states are now the major overall concern among nonaccidental undersea cable disruptions – which is on the rise, but less likely than physical damage by a fishing vessel, ship anchors, or even sharks.

“State actors are almost certainly the greatest threat with regard to intentional sabotage and spying, given their capabilities and strategic incentives,” the report reads. “Non-state actors, including activists and ransomware groups, pose a less capable and lower likelihood threat to the networks and operating systems that submarine cables rely upon, but the threat cannot be discounted.”

That means that U.S. adversaries pose a big risk – especially those like China, where tensions are currently high. Recorded Future warned that Chinese companies are building more undersea cables, in turn increasing espionage risks for countries and companies that rely on them.

“If data is the lifeblood of today’s digitized world, then submarine cables are the critical arteries that sustain it. With no viable alternative on the horizon, the importance of these underwater conduits to global finance, national security, and international communications will almost certainly increase as the demand for data accelerates,” the report concludes. “The continued growth of the submarine cable network … will very likely ensure that this demand will be met, but it will also introduce new complexities and opportunities for threat actors to exploit.”

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Cate Burgan
Cate Burgan
Cate Burgan is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.