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Is China Hacking Undersea Cables? What We Know | #hacking | #cybersecurity | #infosec | #comptia | #pentest | #hacker


U.S. officials are worried undersea communications cables, through which flows 95 percent of the world’s online traffic, are under threat the Asia-Pacific.

The Biden administration has reportedly warned Silicon Valley giants such as Meta and Google, who have invested in submarine cables, about the potential threat of Chinese cable repair ships.

These fears, first reported on by The Wall Street Journal, have emerged against the backdrop of the U.S.-China rivalry across a number of sectors, including information technology, with Washington successfully limiting China’s involvement in international submarine cables that connect with U.S. territory.

CCP leverage over companies

Chinese firms are required by law to hand over data to the Chinese Communist Party government upon request. This has fueled concerns over espionage and data collection in the U.S. and many other countries—fears that prompted Congress to pass a law last month that will ban TikTok if its Chinese parent company, Bytedance, does not divest it.

While the U.S. has introduced restrictions against Chinese telecom operations within the country, citing national security concerns, there are no checks on cable laying ships from China or any other nation from accessing the fiber optic cables crucial for modern communications.

“Tapping cables may produce huge intelligence gains, given that data can be sorted—identifying relevant needles from a digital ‘haystack’—and decrypted as necessary,” Lane Burdette, an analyst for telecommunications market research company TeleGeography, wrote in 2021.

Of particular concern to U.S. officials are ships belonging to Shanghai-based Submarine Systems (SBSS), part of a three-company consortium conducting cable maintenance around Asia.

“Running dark”

According to ship-tracking data, over the past five years, SBSS ships have periodically switched off their automatic identification systems—location transponders the United Nations‘ maritime safety regulator requires ships to use—causing them to go undetected for days at a time while at sea.

This does not mean that the ships are hacking into underwater cables, but “it would raise suspicions if it happens repeatedly, especially if they are operating in the vicinity of a cable that might have strategic significance,” the WSJ cited one unnamed official as saying.

A source familiar with the company told the news agency poor satellite coverage might explain why the ships, “running dark” from time to time.

This December 5, 2007, photo shows a U.K.-flagged cable-layer at anchor off Astoria, Oregon. Biden administration officials are reportedly concerned a Chinese cable repair company could pose an espionage risk.
This December 5, 2007, photo shows a U.K.-flagged cable-layer at anchor off Astoria, Oregon. Biden administration officials are reportedly concerned a Chinese cable repair company could pose an espionage risk.
Wikimedia Commons

“For a ship that size, there is no apparent reason it would have its required safety equipment turned off—and that’s what an AIS transponder is,” Ray Powell, director of the Stanford University‘s SeaLight initiative, which tracks Chinese coast guard and paramilitary vessels in the South China Sea, told Newsweek.

“This is especially concerning given the busy shipping lanes the ships appear to be operating in,” he said.

Newsweek reached out to SBSS, the U.S. State Department, and the Chinese embassy in the U.S. for comment.

In at least six instances in recent years, the U.S. has succeeded in efforts to either exclude a Chinese company from contracts to lay down new cables or prevent major international cables from being extended to China, Reuters reported.

“As the strategic importance of cable networks grows, authoritarian control of companies raises geopolitical concerns because state actors can choose when, where, and how cables are built and enable data interception and development of technological dependence through other countries’ borders,” the United States Naval Institute wrote in an analysis last year.