Russian spies are attempting to tap transatlantic undersea cables

Pierluigi Paganini March 01, 2020

This week, several media reported that agents of the Russian intelligence reportedly went to Ireland to inspect the undersea cables.

The Sunday Times reported that Russian intelligence agents have been sent to Ireland to gather detailed information on the undersea cables that connect Europe to North America. The news is alarming, intelligence agencies fear that Russia plans to carry out new cyber-espionage operations by tapping the undersea cables or even sabotage them.

“Russia has sent intelligence agents to Ireland to map the precise location of the fibre-optic, ocean-bed cables that connect Europe to America, gardai suspect. This has raised concerns that Russian agents are checking the cables for weak points, with a view to tapping or even damaging them in the future.” reported The Sunday Times.

Ireland is a strategic place for intercontinental communications because it represents the place where undersea cables which carry internet traffic connect to Europe.

undersea cables

Garda and military intelligence agencies believe the Russian agents were sent by the military intelligence branch of the Russian armed forces, the GRU. The same branch that is suspected to have killed in former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal.

The Russian spies were also seen monitoring Dublin Port, a circumstance that prompted local authorities in intensifying the control at critical infrastructures and landing sites along the Irish coast.

Experts believe that Ireland is a privileged target for Russian intelligence because it lacks a counter-intelligence capability.

Attacks against undersea cables are not a novelty, in 2014 The Register published information on a secret British spy base located at Seeb on the northern coast of Oman, a strategic position that allows the British Government to tap to various undersea cables passing through the Strait of Hormuz into the Persian/Arabian Gulf. The documents also revealed the existence of other spy bases located in secret places identified with codes “TIMPANI”, “GUITAR” and “CLARINET”.

The Register reports that the secret structures of GCHQ are part of the surveillance programme codenamed “CIRCUIT” and also refers to an Overseas Processing Centre 1 (OPC-1), while another centre, OPC-2, has been planned, according to documents leaked by Snowden.

The base is located at Seeb, on the northern coast of Oman, it is used by the GCHQ to tap in to various undersea cables, Seeb is one of a three site GCHQ network in Oman, location codenamed “TIMPANI” is near the Strait of Hormuz and is used to monitor Iraqi communications, “GUITAR” and “CLARINET” bases  in the south of Oman to spy on communication in Yemen.

In June 2014, a new collection of Snowden’s secret files, published by journalists at The Intercept and Denmark’s Dagbladet Information, revealed that the US has made top-secret deals with more than 30 third-party countries to tap into fiber optic cables all over the world. The documents mention a clandestine program, coded as RAMPART-A, which was conducted with secret arrangements of other intelligence agencies.

undersea cables

Months later, at the end of 2014, new reports based on documents leaked by the whistleblower Edward Snowden, revealed that the undersea cables have become an integral part of the global mass surveillance system operated by the GCHQ thanks the support provided by a company Cable & Wireless, which was acquired by Vodafone in July 2012 for about $1.5 billion.

The details about the support provided to the massive surveillance operations were revealed by the British Channel 4 News, the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, and the German broadcaster WDR, who collaborated with the Intercept. The founding editor Laura Poitras, in fact, obtained a preview of the documents in advance of their publication.

Data provided in the reports are disconcerting, British telecommunications firms supported GCHQ in collecting a large volume of internet data from undersea cables, the overall amount of information from 2007 to 2012 registered a 7,000-fold increase, meanwhile, the spying system monitored nearly 46 billion private communications “events” every day.

The data collected by the undersea cable would include content from online messages, browsing sessions, VOIP calls, and emails.

British telecommunications company Cable & Wireless played a crucial role in the tapping of the undersea cables, in February 2009 a GCHQ employee was assigned to work within the company in a “full-time project management” role to follow the operation from the inside.

The GCHQ paid Cable & Wireless more than £5 million ($9 million) as part of an annual lease for GCHQ to access the undersea cables. In the documents, the company is referred to as a “partner” codenamed Gerontic. Despite the Cable & Wireless bought by Vodafone in July 2012, the Nigella surveillance access point remained active as of April 2013.

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Pierluigi Paganini

(SecurityAffairs – hacking, undersea cables)

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