Monday, 4 February 2008

Playing Devil's Advocate

Dave has quite the theory about the deep sea cable cuts affecting the middle east.

In short, is the USS Jimmy Carter, a special ops submarine, tapping the international fiber runs?

There are several issues with this theory. The first one being tapping fiber. Fiber optic cable is very, very difficult to splice into, even in the best conditions. I've experienced cut fiber runs. It was simpler and quicker to pull the cable and re-run all new, than it was to fix the broken connections. Fiber optic cable is a glass (or plastic) tube through which light waves travel. That tube has to be as smooth as possible to ensure data flow. The slightest imperfection can cause the light waves to degrade rapidly, ruining the signal. To tap a fiber cable, you have to cut it, breaking communications, insert a tap, and ensure you reseal the original cut without ridges, bumps or other imperfections. Additionally undersea fiber optic cables usually have at least 8 fibers. Which means you have to tap all of them. You have have a perfect tap, not once, but 8 times.

At this point, this is just a technical challenge, and it is theoretically possible. But it is still a huge challenge. Assuming that the NSA has figured out a way to overcome this challenge, it creates another. To wit, the huge amounts of data being transmitted.

Even assuming the oldest technology available, each fiber spliced could be transmitting as little as 200 Gigabits of data per second. That is 40,000 times faster than a 5 Megabit home Internet connection. That's 25 Gigabytes of data per second, or 3 feature length DVDs with all the extras every second. 180 DVDs every minute. On each of the 8 fibers, at the slowest capacity.

So to capture all that data, requires a shitload of storage. Assume 4 cables are live, 4 are dark for redundancy, 4 lines X 25 GigaBytes/sec/line X 60 secs/min X 60 mins/hr X 24 hrs/day= 8.6 PetaBytes of data every day. In the ZDNet article linked to above, one analyst makes the statement And no one knows whether the NSA will ever have enough computing power to analyze the resulting gusher of digital data. Crunching the numbers just shows how much of an understatement that is.

To capture all that data for an extended period requires many, many PetaBytes, possibly ExaBytes of storage. Where is it? On the submarine? The tap has to terminate somewhere, you can't just leave it flapping in the ocean current. That means the sub has to stay down there tapping the cable and recording the data 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for, uh, forever. There's only one Jimmy Carter submarine, and there was more than one cable cut.

And then there's another problem, how does all that data get back to the NSA? The submarine could transmit it by radio, but it would have to surface, stopping the collection of data from the taps. And given that radio transmission speeds are a fraction of fiber, the submarine would have to transmit continuously from the surface for (I'd guess) a few months for every day of data collected. Not that efficient, safe or practical. So how does the submarine get that data back for analysis and maintain the tap at the same time?

Last problem. There were 3 (or 4 depending on how you view the last report) cable outages. Two were close to each other, in the Mediterranean Sea. The third and fourth ones were off the coast of Dubai, in the Persian Gulf, over 3000 nautical miles away. During the first gulf war, it took the USS America 7 days to make the trip from the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf at an average speed of 21 knots. The cable cuts in the Mediterranean Sea and Persian Gulf were 2 days apart. If this were all the work of one submarine, it would have to cut the two cables in the Mediterranean, transit the Suez canal, race through the Red Sea and into the Persian Gulf, at 3.5 times the speed of the USS America averaging over 73.5 knots........ That's a stupendous amount of speed for a submarine, and not that inconspicuous either.

So what happened? Well sabotage is not out of the question. It's a lot easier to damage a cable than it is to splice it, and that allows more than one submarine to operate. As Boris points out in the comments at Dave's post, this could be a test to see how fast the affected countries adapt. One thing still bothers me, wouldn't this be an act of war?

I do agree with Dave on one thing, the coincidences of these 4 events are mighty suspicious. It is hard to fathom what natural event could cause 4 cable runs in 2 different seas to fail all within days of each other.

Though as Holmes would say, “It is an old maxim of mine that when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

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