HONOLULU — Federal security officials working an investigation on the Dark Web made an alarming discovery last April. A hacker obtained login credentials for a server at a telecommunications company in Hawaii with access to an undersea communications cable.
Officials feared the hacker would get into the server and shut down one of five undersea communications cables stretching 2,500 miles from these idyllic Pacific islands to the mainland.
The disruption could have affected telephone, internet, cable and cell phone service for not only civilian infrastructure but the island’s strategic military bases led by the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.
Within hours of being alerted to the undersea cable threat, the Honolulu office of Homeland Security Investigations, part of the Department of Homeland Security, alerted the company and took steps to make sure the network was not breached. Officials said an attack on the company had been “disrupted.”
Six months later, the incident is still under investigation. The telecom company was not identified, nor was a hacker who had the login data who was arrested in a foreign country.
“The indications are more toward the criminal side and there was an international nexus to it,” said Frank J. Pace, homeland security administrator at the Hawaii state department of defense who helped respond to the threat.
“As far as I know, there was no nation-state issue,” he added.
But security officials here say the attempted cyber break-in highlights the vulnerability of undersea cables.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration states that 95% of all international data and voice transfers travel on fiber optic cables on the ocean’s floors.
“Submarine cables clearly play a critical role in global communications,” NOAA said noting their role in links with Hawaii, Alaska, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Marianas, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“They also support critical commercial, economic and national security endeavors. and they carry a majority of civilian, military and government offshore communications traffic.”
The threat of disruption to undersea cables comes at a time increasing geopolitical tensions with China over Taiwan, and with Russia over its war in Ukraine.
“The vulnerability of undersea cables and their points of entry onto and off the land are critically important,” said retired Navy Capt. Jim Fanell, a former Pacific Fleet intelligence director.
“The security of these cables is a national security priority that must be protected and that requires an administration that will increase, not decrease, the funding for the U.S. Navy,” he said noting that the data in the cables the global economy and global infrastructure from energy, banking, and food supply.”
Submarine cables connect the world through a spider web of underwater links, mostly made up of fiber optic lines. They send data at fantastic speeds up to 180,000 miles a second, and sharing 400 gigabytes of data per second.
The network of wires has increasing in importance with the use of cloud computing, streaming and increased reliance by both government and private sector operations.
Cables can be disrupted by natural disaster as occurred in January on the Pacific island of Tonga. An underwater volcano erupted, severing a cable and cutting off the island’s links to the rest of the world until repairs were made a month later.
On Thursday, a fishing vessel was suspected of cutting an undersea cable and disrupting communications near the Scottish archipelago of Shetland, across from Norway and around 100 miles north of mainland Britain.
Clandestinely accessing underwater communications links or breaking in to landing points also can provide an espionage bonanza for states such as China, which in 2018 was caught diverting internet traffic for espionage and intellectual property theft.
A larger danger is that the cables will be sabotaged during crises or conflict to disrupt enemy communications, a concern heightened by recent tensions between the United States and China over Taiwan.
Mr. Pace, the Hawaii homeland security administrator, said a recent threat briefing provided to senior state leaders reveals that China is speeding up plans to take over Taiwan, by force if necessary.
Emergency planners in Hawaii are prepared to respond to the loss of undersea cables if a conflict breaks out on the Taiwan Strait, he said.
Also, Chinese and Russian intelligence-gathering ships regularly sail in waters near Hawaii. Officials say one mission for the spy ships is reconnaissance of undersea cables in preparation of future attacks.
The cables are located deep under the Pacific ocean but reach shallower water — and thus are more vulnerable to attack — as they near coasts and landing stations.
The targeting of a Hawaiian submarine cable set off alarm bells at the Indo-Pacific Command among security officials who recognized that any disruption of undersea cables could impact a range of military functions that rely on the internet for communications.
The command headquarters here operates military forces – warships, submarines, bombers and ground forces – that are deployed from Alaska to India.
The forces must be ready at all times to respond to crises or conflict, such as a Chinese attack on Taiwan, or a new outbreak of war between North Korea and South Korea.
A report made public in August by George Mason University’s Mercatus Center warned that war between China and Taiwan likely will involve attacks on undersea communications cables or landing points.
People’s Liberation Army forces are expected to target undersea cables, or launch cyber or military attacks on submarine cable landing stations to disrupt both civilian and military data and communications links, the report stated.
Similar strikes are expected in Hawaii, Mr. Pace said, because of the island’s strategic location and its military facilities. Geopolitical tensions have heightened security officials’ concerns about communications disruptions, he noted.
Maps showing Hawaii’s five undersea cables, all privately owned, can be found with an internet search.
Hawaiian Telcom, which owns one of the submarine cables, said its server was not involved in the April compromise of login credentials.
“We maintain a robust security operations program that adheres to the cyber and physical security requirements of the National Institute of Standards and Technology for the protection of our systems and facilities,” said Ann Nishida, a company spokeswoman.
Spokesmen for four other owners of undersea cables in Hawaii did not respond to a request for comment.
The other cables, one of which was likely the target in of potential telecommunications server hack in April, are the Southern Cross cable, SEA-US cable, Asia-America Gateway cable, the Japan-U.S. cable and the Hawaiki cable.
The Japan-U.S. cable is jointly owned by AT&T and 23 other companies mostly in Asia, including Chinese state-run China Telecom and China Unicom. The involvement of Beijing-linked companies in part ownership in that cable is a cause of concern for security officials.
“If directed, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command stands ready to respond to threats to U.S. government property and interests across the region,” Capt. Gregory said.
“From Indo-Pacom’s perspective, they have a concern of mission assurance,” Mr. Pace said.
Although military communications links are generally secure, the command relies on cable communications to project power.
Severing undersea cables or electronically disrupting their information flows, whether civilian or military, could impact missions, he said.
Ownership of the cable network of more than 800,000 miles of the bundled glass threads is shifting.
The cables in the past were dominated by telecommunications companies and governments.
Today, however, four major technology giants, Microsoft, Alphabet, (parent company of Google, Meta (formerly Facebook) and Amazon are now the dominant users of undersea cable capacity, the Wall Street Journal reported in January.
By 2024, the four companies will own more than 30 long-distance submarine cables linking every continent on the globe.
The objective of the companies is to increase bandwidth and improve connectivity for the coming internet-of-things expansion.