Can sharks eat the Internet?
Updated on 02 November 2023
Were you aware of the fact that sharks chew through undersea cables that are an integral part of the internet’s physical infrastructure? Scientists are unsure why they do it, though they suspect that the electromagnetic fields emitted by high-volume fibre-optic cables may make them look like live prey. But whatever the reason, the threat is serious enough that Google claims to coat their cables in bullet-proof material in case of a shark attack – and other attacks.
Of course, the serious answer to the headline’s question is: No, sharks will not eat and kill the internet. For one thing, the internet is a diffuse and globally distributed network with billions of nodes and that is impossible to pin down to a single location, let alone eat. Another point is, shark attacks are behind only a tiny fraction (around 1%) of the overall damage sustained by deep-sea cables, via dropped anchors, trawler nets, natural disasters, and even deliberate sabotage that represent far more intentional threats.
But shark attacks do one thing incomparably better than any of those others: They generate the kind of humorous, attention-grabbing headlines we need to get us all thinking about the extreme vulnerability of the undersea infrastructure on which our entire digital world relies. And that’s certainly not a matter to take lightly – on the contrary, it’s an urgent problem that should concern us all deeply.
Our very way of life is at stake.
A global threat: The vulnerability of undersea fibre-optic cables
Not convinced? No need to take my word for it. Just February this year, a Columbia University expert in global economics, Prof. Jeffrey D. Sachs, called on the UN Security Council to address the vulnerability of submarine infrastructure as a matter of urgency. The same month, NATO announced it was establishing a Critical Undersea Infrastructure Coordination Cell with the sole mandate of ensuring the security of undersea infrastructure, with internet cables near the top of the urgency hierarchy (though sharks are admittedly likely to be low on the agenda).
If the panic seems too much, there’s a good reason for it. Quite simply – the stakes are high. Submarine fibre-optic cables are pivotal in keeping the world connected and online, transmitting vast amounts of data between continents 24 hours//365 days in an immense, unceasing flow. The planet’s ocean floors are crisscrossed by more than 1 million kilometres of cables, making close monitoring and proper protection extremely challenging.
That’s a problem, and a significant one. Because, all of the internet’s immense benefits, and our reliance on them, has left us exposed in unprecedented and dangerous ways.
The worldwide web has threaded itself through our daily lives densely and deeply. Consider how accustomed we have become to luxuries and conveniences like Netflix, Google, and Strava. Or think about the Internet of Things (IoTs): Without connectivity, we are suddenly surrounded by useless objects whose functions we will need to re-learn ourselves. Think about the amount of information we consume through a single internet connection, from news to music to emails and social media. Think about how we navigate the physical world relying on Google maps, apps for traffic and the weather, and WhatsApp or Signal to make and change plans in real time.
Without the internet all of that is gone, and likely without warning.
Of course, us humans are very adaptable, and though hardly trivial, many of these disruptions could be taken in stride. But there are even more serious levels of reliance…
Hospitals, electricity grids, emergency services, public transport, the aeronautical industry, and international diplomacy: all deeply depend on the internet to run safely and smoothly. And what about our ability to respond to large-scale international crises? COVID-19, for example, was mitigated to a significant degree through the ability to shift rapidly to a work-from-home model and contact-tracing, all thanks to the internet. It is no exaggeration to say that the internet saved millions of lives – but only because it was working when we needed it most.
In short, mostly for the better, modern life is founded on the internet. But the internet is in turn, based on physical infrastructure, much of it undersea and worryingly vulnerable. Without a truly viable backup or alternative – satellite technology doesn’t have the capacity at this stage – urgent measures are required.
What can be done?
There are already measures in place to guard seabed infrastructure. For instance, the data transmitted by deep-sea cables is protected by end-to-end encryption that prevents hostile actors from gaining illicit access. The UN Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) regulates international waters; (a) setting strict rules surrounding the construction and maintenance of seabed cables, (b) limiting activities such as fishing and anchoring in their vicinity, (c) specifying which country has jurisdiction over and responsibility for them. Finally, the new NATO initiative will provide additional military and naval security.
But technically, physically, and legally these protections remain insufficient.
One way forward is simply installing more cables. There’s an apparent contradiction here; as mentioned, one of the undersea network’s vulnerabilities is its vast extent. Yet, adding to the network will mitigate its vulnerabilities, providing a failsafe capacity in case of an attack or damage to the existing infrastructure.
Another is to take a more local approach that eases our reliance on vast international networks, using internet exchange points (IXPs) to connect geographically-proximate networks and keep traffic local. It’s also true that pursuing innovation in satellite technology would be beneficial, notwithstanding its current shortcomings regarding large-scale information transfer. No stone should be left unturned as we seek to find and develop sustainable and safe ways to maximise the capacity and stability of our internet infrastructure.
What must be avoided at all costs is complacency. Our current way of life across much of the globe relies on a functioning internet, and reliable high-speed connectivity also has a crucial role in improving living standards in areas that are currently under-served. Will sharks eat the internet? Of course not. But if they can provide attention-grabbing headlines that bring the security of our information infrastructure into the public consciousness, they may have an important part to play nonetheless.