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February 05, 2008

Communication Breakdown

In researching the Security and Society focus area for the upcoming set of GIO deep dives, there has been a surprising amount of philosophical pondering among the team. On the surface, the topic seems rather uncomplicated. But upon closer inspection, myriad subtleties begin to present themselves.

For example, what does security really mean? Where does personal security end and national security begin? What’s the difference between security and safety?

All of these questions and more will be tackled by far greater minds than our own when the deep dives kick off in April. But in the meantime, there are lots of interesting angles to explore right here on the pages of the GIO blog.

One of those angles is surfacing right now in the Middle East. In just the past week, four undersea communications cables have been cut, disrupting internet service from Singapore to Bangalore, and throughout Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. The cause of the problem is still undetermined, but officials have already ruled out their first explanation: that wayward ships dropped anchor on the cables. With every passing day, sabotage seems more likely.

Whatever the ultimate cause for the disruptions, the phenomenon brings into focus the world’s sudden and nearly complete reliance on global communications, and how surprisingly fragile those communications are. Though telecommunications has been around since the early 1800s, it wasn’t until the advent of the Internet that the power of this medium took hold in a global sense. In a very short amount of time – less than 20 years – the world has grown fantastically interdependent, each region becoming increasingly affected by the actions of its global neighbors. As such, the number of so-called “points-of-failure” has increased exponentially, and our ability to police and secure those vulnerabilities, thereby protecting the critical channels of global commerce, has been greatly diminished.

It is also a stark reminder that no matter how digital we become, communications are still grounded in physical reality. Whether it is satellites, cell towers, or hard wires that run the length of the seas, we still live in a physical world. Damage to those physical structures can result in millions of dollars lost, and lives put in danger. We won't know for weeks how much India's outsourcing call centers have lost due to the service slowdowns of the past week.

One quote from the International Herald Tribune’s coverage of the cable cuts is particularly enlightening. Colonel R. S. Parihar, secretary of the Internet Service Providers Association of India, said “this has been a real eye-opener for us, and everyone in the telecom industry worldwide. Today the cause may have been an anchor, but what if it is sabotage tomorrow? These [cables] are owned by private operators, and there are no governments or armies protecting them.”

Parihar’s point is well taken. It is a classic question of whether the private sector has too much responsibility for the security of the Internet. And what role should government be playing?

The need for collaborative efforts between the government and the private sector in industries that have global security implications is nothing new. But because the Internet has evolved so rapidly, these relationships are immature at best, and in many cases non-existent. Perhaps getting the right players together through the GIO will help.

February 5, 2008 in Security and Society | Permalink

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