As tensions continue to build and U.S. and Russian intervention in the Syrian conflict escalates, there is mounting evidence that Moscow could be positioning itself for a major cyber-attack on the United States.
Recent suspicious activities conducted by Russia, in space and below the ocean’s surface, have raised questions concerning the possibility that Moscow may be attempting to place itself into a condition to launch a cyber-attack, or is at least exploring the feasibility of doing so. U.S. intelligence said that it is now closely monitoring Russian vessels operating near the trans-Atlantic cable system, according to a report from CNN, on Wednesday. The New York Times also reported, earlier this week, that Russian submarines and spy ships are actively patrolling the ocean near undersea data cables, prompting concerns that Russia may be attempting to mine data or possibly even sabotage them.
U.S. officials already suspect Kremlin involvement in several attempts to breach classified government information systems–some of which were marginally successful. Although Russia denies conducting any clandestine operations, distrust continues to surround its activities. There is also speculation that it may be searching for the locations of hidden U.S. military undersea data cables.
These cables are a tremendously important part of internet infrastructure, used to transmit vital data and other communications throughout the world. According to reports, there is currently no evidence of Russian tampering with the cables; however, experts agree that sabotaging these lines could cause serious problems because Russian vessels appear to be interested in cables located in deeper parts of the ocean, where damage would be far more difficult to locate and repair.
Keith Schofield, general manager of the International Cable Protection Committee, an organization that oversees the majority of the world’s undersea cables told NPR that it would take quite a few submarines to do enough damage to affect the internet in the United States. Russia reportedly has 48 submarines currently in its fleet—with several believed to have deep-diving capability.
Tim Stronge, a researcher at TeleGeography, said that it would take at least 15 submarines to completely sever connections in the Atlantic Ocean alone.
“And if you eliminated all the trans-Atlantic connectivity, well, there’s trans-Pacific connectivity you would have to address as well. To cut all those is even more of a fanciful proposition,” said Stronge, according to the report.
Schofield also pointed out that even if an entity managed to cut all U.S. undersea cable connections, there will still be internet access via satellite. However, there is also evidence that Russia may be exploring that avenue as well.
The BBC reported that a Russian military satellite parked itself near two U.S. Intelsat satellites back in July, where it remained until mid-September. Intelsat Inc., maintains a number of communications satellites along with certain satellites designated for military purposes. The suspicious maneuver made by the Russian satellite was sufficient enough to attract the attention and concern of the US Department of Defense.
“JFCC-Space has transmitted emergency close approach notifications to Russia, based on predictions of a close approach with another space object of 5km (three miles) or less within 72 hours,” Defense Department spokesman Lt. Col. Tom Crosson told the BBC.
Additionally there is a report of a 2014 launch by Russia that sparked concern over its purpose. Fox News reported in May of that year, Russia launched an object designated, “Object 2014-28E.” The object was dismissed as an attempt to intercept or damage other satellites based on experts’ assessments, according to the report.
The question remains if Russia even has the technology to interfere with satellite operations. The Department of Defense did not immediately respond to inquiries concerning the matter, but the possibility exists that Russia has the capability to destroy orbiting satellites, based on its Cold War experimentation with that technology.
Russian ability to damage or destroy undersea data cables is another story. According to the NPR report, the cables that Russian vessels have been observed nearby are far less protected than those in more shallow waters, meaning it would only be a matter of reaching the depths where those cables are located, however, experts say it would still take a “consistent, sustained and diverse” assault to create a serious problem.