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Spies tampered SEA-ME-WE 3 and SEA-ME-WE 4 submarine cables. Is SEA-ME-WE 5 next victim?

Espionage outfits of Singapore, Australia, USA and UK have unlawfully intercepted the voice and data traffic of SEA-ME-WE 3 and SEA-ME-WE 4 submarine cable networks. Philip Dorling, the National Affairs and Defence Correspondent for The Canberra Times, broke this news quoting Edward Snowden’s leaked information. Australia’s all the major newspapers (Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and Brisbane Times) have simultaneously published his sensational exclusive report.

Australian intelligence expert and Australian National University professor Des Ball said that intelligence collection from fibre optic cables had become “extremely important” since the late 1990s because such communications channels now carry more than 95 per cent of long distance international telecommunications traffic.

“Fibre optic cables are much more difficult to intercept than satellite communications,” Professor Ball said. Australia’s undersea cable links carry both international and domestic traffic because internal Australian communications are often routed overseas depending on traffic loads.

One former Australian Defence intelligence officer told Fairfax Media that access to submarine fibre optic cable traffic ”gives the 5-eyes [intelligence alliance] and our partners like Singapore a stranglehold on communications across the Eastern Hemisphere”.

SingTel has reportedly gained from Australia in exchange of providing access to SEA-ME-WE 3 and SEA-ME-WE 4, which have been built by the multi-government submarine cable consortiums. Such disclosure impacts Singapore’s reputation of being the regional hub of connectivity and data storage. Submarine cable veteran Sunil Tagare had, however, warned about such interceptions and suggested the solution as well:

The recent snooping controversies have made all the carriers and countries nervous because they realize that all of their data is being snooped at multiple locations around the world.  There is a technical solution which will resolve the issue in most of the locations worldwide for new cables.  There is a need for the Branching Unit to act like a pure switch so that no country in the world has a full landing for any cable.  Even the starting and ending countries will only see the traffic that only terminates in those countries.  Basically, I am talking about every country in the world being a branch country.  The day this technology is available, the old cables with full landings in multiple countries will be obsolete as governments and corporate customers will force the carriers to use the new cables. This technology can even be used to cross countries like Egypt where the spooks will be able to tap in to only the Egyptian traffic and nothing else.

The security agencies’ meddling adds a new dimension to my ongoing research of reducing Asia’s reliance from submarine cable. Proposed cross-border terrestrial optical fiber networks will grossly reduce handful of powerful intelligence agencies’ ability to tamper with the international traffic. Because the overland networks, unlike its undersea counterparts, have no terminating point. Singapore’s hub-and-spoke status has allured the western intelligence agencies to sneak in. Overland optical fiber links greatly “democratize” the networks’ character. Tyrants and warmongers equally hate democracy, as being witnessed over Syria. SingTel will have to deliver a great speech while the partners meet at the end of September to finalize the construction of SEA-ME-WE 5 cable.

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