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NATO Backs Effort to Save Internet by Rerouting to Space in Event of Subsea Attacks

(Bloomberg) -- NATO is helping finance a project aimed at finding ways to keep the internet running should subsea cables shuttling civilian and military communications across European waters come under attack.

Researchers, who include academics from the US, Iceland, Sweden and Switzerland, say they want to develop a way to seamlessly reroute internet traffic from subsea cables to satellite systems in the event of sabotage, or a natural disaster. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s Science for Peace and Security Programme has approved a grant of as much as €400,000 ($433,600) for the $2.5 million project, and research institutions are providing in-kind contributions, documents seen by Bloomberg show.

Eyup Kuntay Turmus, adviser and program manager at the NATO program, confirmed the project was recently approved and said by email that implementation will start “very soon.”

The initiative, which hasn’t yet been publicly announced, comes amid intensifying fears that Russia or China could mine, sever or otherwise tamper with undersea cables in an attempt to disrupt communications during a military crisis. Data carried through cables under the sea account for roughly $10 trillion worth of financial transactions every day, and nearly all of the NATO’s internet traffic travels through them, according to the treaty organization.

As a result, NATO has been ramping up efforts to protect cables over the course of the past several months. Last year, it also established a center to coordinate best practices for protecting undersea infrastructure in the wake of a September 2022 explosion that destroyed the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

This latest research effort, which documents show is due to formally launch with a symposium at Cornell University in New York later this month, is focused on developing methods to detect disturbances on cables and then automating bids to access satellite bandwidth (or potentially other subsea cables) to reroute data.

Before researchers create a working operational system, they’ll spend two years testing prototypes and navigating regulations, according to project leaders and documents seen by Bloomberg. The project is expected to eventually involve commercial and government partners.

Hans Liwång, an associate professor for defense systems at the Swedish Defence University who is one of two primary co-directors for the project, said in an interview that he envisions a system that can reroute sensitive data even as a precautionary measure. It makes sense, Liwång said, to develop an automated backup system in space given the rising threats to undersea critical infrastructure.

The risks range from cables inadvertently severed by anchors dragging along the sea floor to deliberate sabotage — including what Sweden said was “purposeful” damage in October to a Baltic subsea cable linking Estonia and Sweden.

“With enough time and banging our heads against the wall we are confident we can do it,” said Gregory Falco, a space systems engineer at Cornell University and the other co-director for the project, known as Hybrid Space and Submarine Architecture to Ensure Information Security of Telecommunications, or HEIST for short.

Falco described the project as technically complex, dependent on “very messy” international law and said it will require a lot of jurisdictional coordination.

The Swedish Navy and Icelandic government are among those interested in using the system developed by the HEIST researchers, according to documents seen by Bloomberg. “You would need three or four bombs to just cut off Iceland and its communications,” said Bjarni Már Magnússon, a law professor at Bifröst University in Iceland who will also work on HEIST. Representatives from the Swedish Navy and Icelandic Government didn’t provide comment.

US satellite firm Viasat Inc., space tech company Sierra Space Corp. and Icelandic cybersecurity company Syndis are also participating in the effort, the documents show. The US and allies have publicly blamed Russia for a hack that affected more than 45,000 Viasat modems across Europe and disrupted Ukrainian military communications on the eve of Russia’s 2022 invasion.

Theódór Gíslason, head of innovation at Syndis, said he was looking forward to using the findings of the NATO-backed project to defend Iceland against potential cable attacks.

A representative for Sierra Space didn’t provide comment.

Craig Miller, president of Global Space Networks at Viasat, said in a statement that the company believes combining subsea and space infrastructure is “fundamental to protecting global communications and ensuring the secure data transmission of the most sensitive information.”

As part of the project, Viasat intends to engineer satellite communication technologies and optical links capable of rerouting data in real time should undersea fiber communications be disrupted, he said.

Researchers are also looking at ways to detect threats to undersea cables more effectively in order to determine when traffic needs to be rerouted. Subsea cable network operators can detect disturbances on a cable down to the nearest kilometer, but the project aims to reduce that to the nearest meter, according to Falco.

The project will undergo development in part at an underwater testbed for high-voltage cables near Sweden’s largest naval base, said Henric Johnson, a computer science professor at Sweden’s Blekinge Institute of Technology, who has tracked the rise of subsea warfare and will also participate in the HEIST project.

(Updates with comment from Viasat starting in 15th paragraph.)

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.

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