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US warns of Chinese tampering the undersea internet cables

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US officials have issued private warnings to telecommunications companies about the potential vulnerability of undersea cables in the Pacific Ocean to tampering by Chinese repair ships. This warning comes amid heightened concerns over national security and safeguarding critical infrastructure.

First reported by WSJ, State Department officials have raised alarms about the activities of S.B. Submarine Systems (SBSS), a state-controlled Chinese company responsible for repairing international cables.

According to these officials, SBSS’s vessels have been intermittently disappearing from radio and satellite tracking services, raising suspicions about their potential operations.

Three of their ships—Fu Hai, Fu Tai, and Bold Maverick—have displayed this behaviour, particularly in sensitive areas near Taiwan and Indonesia.

The Biden administration’s scrutiny of Chinese cable repair ships is part of a broader effort to address China’s maritime activities and potential impact on US communications infrastructure. US officials fear that the Chinese vessels could compromise the security of undersea cables owned by American tech giants like Google and MEta. These cables are crucial for both commercial and military data transmission.

The undersea fibre-optic cables, which span hundreds of thousands of miles, carry almost all the world’s international internet traffic and tampering with them could be detrimental to many nations.

While the Biden administration and major tech companies like Google and Meta have declined to comment on specific concerns related to SBSS, the issue has garnered significant attention within the government.

The undersea cables carry the world’s internet data and any tampering with them could affect many nations.

Nathaniel Fick, the State Department’s top cybersecurity official, highlighted the risks posed by suppliers subordinate to authoritarian governments, asserting that the security of undersea cables cannot be guaranteed under such conditions.

“I believe when our adversaries tell us what they intend to do, we should believe them,” said Fick.

The security of undersea cables has been a concern since the Cold War, with past incidents like Operation Ivy Bells illustrating the strategic importance of these communication lines. China’s rapid military buildup in the South China Sea has intensified these concerns in recent decades.

To mitigate risks, the US government and companies like Google have invested in new cable projects and infrastructure in the Pacific region. Additionally, private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management’s SubCom receives substantial US government funding to maintain a fleet ready for emergency cable repairs.

Industry analysts acknowledge the challenges in shifting repair responsibilities away from Chinese vessels, given the limited number of specialised ships available globally.

Ensuring the security of undersea cables remains a critical priority for US national security, particularly given the ongoing strategic rivalry with China.

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Kumar Hemant

Kumar Hemant

Deputy Editor at Candid.Technology. Hemant writes at the intersection of tech and culture and has a keen interest in science, social issues and international relations. You can contact him here: