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Spotlight falls on Russian threat to undersea cables

The Trump administration’s new sanctions on Russia are casting light on the threat posed to the undersea cables that carry the world’s electronic communications between continents.

The Treasury Department sanctioned five Russian firms and three Russian nationals this week for aiding the Kremlin’s domestic security service, the FSB. One of the companies is alleged to have provided support for Moscow’s “underwater capabilities” — including producing diving systems and a submersible craft for the FSB.

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The Treasury Department alleged that Russia has been “active” in tracking underwater fiber optic cables that transmit communications across continents.

The threat to undersea cables is multifaceted. Foreign adversaries could track their whereabouts to sabotage them and cut rivals off from communications.

Or they could be motivated by espionage. There has long been suspicion that Moscow is actively targeting these cables for spying purposes.

More recently, Russia’s assertive maneuvers at sea have spurred concerns that Moscow might be looking to sabotage the systems through physical means — an effort that, if successful, could have debilitating economic and security impacts.

“A Russian submarine plus special forces undersea divers, they could create chaos in the world ... by disrupting critical internet infrastructure,” said Kenneth Geers, a former National Security Agency official and cyber and national security expert at the Atlantic Council.

Geers said the technology is “highly vulnerable” to physical sabotage.

The cables carry 97 percent of all cross-continent electronic communications, including everything from personal communications, sensitive national security data and financial transactions.

The New York Times reported in October 2015 that aggressive Russian naval operations near those cables triggered worries among some U.S. officials that Moscow could be plotting to attack them in the event of a conflict.

Rep. Jim LangevinJames (Jim) R. LangevinWatchdog exposes Pentagon's cyber struggles Primary season cyberattacks illuminate campaign vulnerabilities Hillicon Valley: State officials share tech privacy concerns with Sessions | Senator says election security bill won't pass before midterms | Instagram co-founders leave Facebook | Google chief to meet GOP lawmakers over bias claims MORE (D-R.I.), a member of the House Armed Services and the House Homeland Security committees, said if Russians or other foreign nations targeted the cables in a time of war, the attack would be “high-cost and high-impact.”

“Underwater cables are an important part of critical infrastructure,” Langevin told The Hill on Friday. “Were those ever to be cut, there would be significant damage to our economy and to our everyday lives.”

One instance that alarmed officials involved a Russian spy ship, the Yantar, moving slowly off the U.S. East Coast toward Cuba, the location of one undersea cable near the Guantanamo Bay naval facility.

U.S. officials have since cited an increase in Russian naval activity. Those moves come with relations between Washington and Moscow at a low, despite President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump: 'I don't trust everybody in the White House' JPMorgan CEO withdraws from Saudi conference Trump defends family separations at border MORE's desire to cultivate a positive relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“We've seen activity in the Russian Navy, and particularly undersea in their submarine activity, that we haven't seen since the '80s,” Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti testified before the House Armed Services Committee in March.

Overall, the evolution of Russia's naval capabilities has created a new challenge for the U.S.

“They're producing maritime enhancements to existing ships and a new submarine that is ... definitely more modern and more challenging,” Scaparrotti said in March.

Officials are taking action.

The Treasury Department on Monday sanctioned a Russian company, Divetechnoservices, for procuring “a variety of underwater equipment and diving systems” for agencies of the Kremlin, including the FSB. The company was also allegedly contracted to develop a $1.5 million submersible craft for the security service in 2011. Three Russian individuals were also sanctioned for acting on behalf of the company.

Divetechnoservices, as well as the Russian Embassy in Washington, did not respond to requests for comment.

Some former officials doubt that Russia would go so far as to disrupt critical cables outside of an actual war. Still, Russia could be searching for vulnerabilities that could be exploited.

“All potential adversaries such as Russia and China understand that we are dependent on information enabled technologies and they see it as an asymmetric vulnerability of the United States,” said Frank Rose, a former State Department official and senior fellow for security and strategy at the Brookings Institution.

The espionage threat to the cables, meanwhile, has loomed since the Cold War. What is different now is the massive and growing amounts of data they carry — a highly valuable target for foreign spies.

The cables, most of which are owned by private telecommunications firms, run under the sea and come ashore at various locations throughout the globe, with sites in the U.S. and in other countries, like Japan.

“If you want to engage in signals intelligence, being able to tap into these landing points ... gives you tremendous access to data,” said Jim Lewis, a former State Department official and expert in technology and foreign policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I can either tap 160 million phones or tap one cable.”

Other officials cautioned that sabotage is more likely than espionage, in part because it would require the hackers to tap into the cables and extract information from the open ocean.

“It is much more likely that sabotage would be something that could potentially damage or exploit these cables than espionage,” said Robert Anderson, a former national security executive at the FBI and now a security expert with the Chertoff Group.

“It is a lot harder to have the ability to tap into these [cables] without anybody finding out about it and then gleaning off intelligence over time,” added Anderson. He said the threat lingers in areas where the cables are in shallower waters or make landfall.

The threat of foreign adversaries targeting these systems for intelligence has been compounded as more countries build up their capabilities.

U.S. officials have said little publicly about the particular threat Russia and others might pose to these cables. It's a sensitive topic, partly because the U.S. government also tapped undersea cables for intelligence purposes, as revealed in 2013 by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) did release a joint public-private sector report last September on the rising risks to undersea communications cables. The report partly blamed the risk on vulnerability to remotely controlled networks, the growing threat of cyberattacks and concerns among foreign nation-states interfering with the system.

The ODNI declined to offer additional information when contacted by The Hill.

British officials and some former U.S. officials have argued publicly that these cables have minimal protections at sea and at their landing sites — and warrant more protections from potential sabotage.

“The arteries upon which the Internet and our modern world depends have been left highly vulnerable. Whether from terrorist activity or an increasingly bellicose Russian naval presence, the threat of these vulnerabilities being exploited is growing,” Rishi Sunak, a British member of Parliament, wrote in paper published last December.

“A successful attack would deal a crippling blow to Britain’s security and prosperity. The threat is nothing short of existential.”

The Treasury sanctions announced Monday were issued under a law passed by Congress last year to punish Moscow for interfering in the 2016 presidential election and other malign activities. It's part of a growing effort by the Trump administration to call out and punish Russia for its behavior in cyberspace and elsewhere.

“The entities designated today have directly contributed to improving Russia’s cyber and underwater capabilities through their work with the FSB and therefore jeopardize the safety and security of the United States and our allies,” Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinJPMorgan CEO withdraws from Saudi conference Ford Motor chairman pulls out of Saudi conference Durbin opposes Saudi arms sale over missing journalist MORE said in a statement. “The United States is committed to aggressively targeting any entity or individual working at the direction of the FSB whose work threatens the United States.”

The penalties, though, clearly highlight the worries among U.S. officials.

“These are fundamentally critical to the modern economy and national security,” said Rose. “It’s clear from this that the Trump administration is concerned about this issue, as the Obama administration was.”