Tag Archives: underwater hydroacoustic centers

Who Owns the Real Information System

In January 2022, the head of the UK’s armed forces has warned that Russia submarine activity is threatening underwater cables that are crucial to communication systems around the world. Admiral Sir Tony Radakin said undersea cables that transmit internet data are ‘the world’s real information system,’ and added that any attempt to damage then could be considered an act of war.

The internet seems like a post- physical environment where things like viral posts, virtual goods and metaverse concerts just sort of happen. But creating that illusion requires a truly gargantuan—and quickly-growing—web of physical connections. Fiber-optic cable, which carries 95% of the world’s international internet traffic, links up pretty much all of the world’s data centers…

Where those fiber-optic connections link up countries across the oceans, they consist almost entirely of cables running underwater—some 1.3 million kilometers (or more than 800,000 miles) of bundled glass threads that make up the actual, physical international internet. And until recently, the overwhelming majority of the undersea fiber-optic cable being installed was controlled and used by telecommunications companies and governments. Today, that’s no longer the case.

In less than a decade, four tech giants— Microsoft, Google parent Alphabet, Meta (formerly Facebook ) and Amazon —have become by far the dominant users of undersea-cable capacity. Before 2012, the share of the world’s undersea fiber-optic capacity being used by those companies was less than 10%. Today, that figure is about 66%.  In the next three years, they are on track to become primary financiers and owners of the web of undersea internet cables connecting the richest and most bandwidth-hungry countries on the shores of both the Atlantic and the Pacific.

By 2024, the four are projected to collectively have an ownership stake in more than 30 long-distance undersea cables, each up to thousands of miles long, connecting every continent on the globe save Antarctica. In 2010, these companies had an ownership stake in only one such cable—the Unity cable partly owned by Google, connecting Japan and the U.S. Traditional telecom companies have responded with suspicion and even hostility to tech companies’ increasingly rapacious demand for the world’s bandwidth. Industry analysts have raised concerns about whether we want the world’s most powerful providers of internet services and marketplaces to also own the infrastructure on which they are all delivered. This concern is understandable. Imagine if Amazon owned the roads on which it delivers packages.

But the involvement of these companies in the cable-laying industry also has driven down the cost of transmitting data across oceans for everyone, even their competitors….Undersea cables can cost hundreds of millions of dollars each. Installing and maintaining them requires a small fleet of ships, from surveying vessels to specialized cable-laying ships that deploy all manner of rugged undersea technology to bury cables beneath the seabed. At times they must lay the relatively fragile cable—at some points as thin as a garden hose—at depths of up to 4 miles.

All of this must be done while maintaining the right amount of tension in the cables, and avoiding hazards as varied as undersea mountains, oil-and-gas pipelines, high-voltage transmission lines for offshore wind farms, and even shipwrecks and unexploded bombs…In the past, trans-oceanic cable-laying often required the resources of governments and their national telecom companies. That’s all but pocket change to today’s tech titans. Combined, Microsoft, Alphabet, Meta and Amazon poured more than $90 billion into capital expenditures in 2020 alone…

Most of these Big Tech-funded cables are collaborations among rivals. The Marea cable, for example, which stretches approximately 4,100 miles between Virginia Beach in the U.S. and Bilbao, Spain, was completed in 2017 and is partly owned by Microsoft, Meta and Telxius, a subsidiary of Telefónica, the Spanish telecom.  Sharing bandwidth among competitors helps ensure that each company has capacity on more cables, redundancy that is essential for keeping the world’s internet humming when a cable is severed or damaged. That happens around 200 times a year, according to the International Cable Protection Committee, a nonprofit group. 

There is an exception to big tech companies collaborating with rivals on the underwater infrastructure of the internet. Google, alone among big tech companies, is already the sole owner of three different undersea cables

Excerpts from Christopher Mims, Google, Amazon, Meta and Microsoft Weave a Fiber-Optic Web of Power, WSJ, Jan. 15, 2022

Under-Water Data Centers: Reliable, Cool and Cheap

Earlier this year a ship hauled a large, barnacle-covered cylinder sporting a Microsoft logo from the seas off the Orkney islands. Inside were a dozen server racks, of the sort found in data-centres around the world. Sunk in 2018, and connected to the shore by cable, the computers had spent the past couple of years humming away, part of an experiment into the feasibility of building data-centres underwater.

On September 14th, 2020 Microsoft revealed some results. The aquatic data-centre suffered equipment failures at just one-eighth the rate of those built on land. Being inaccessible to humans, the firm could fill it with nitrogen instead of air, cutting down corrosion. The lack of human visitors also meant none of the bumping and jostling that can cause faults on land.

Microsoft hopes some of the lessons can be applied to existing, land-based data-centers. In the longer term, though, it notes that building underwater offers advantages beyond just reliability. Immersion in seawater helps with cooling, a big expense on land. Data-centres work best when placed close to customers. Land in New York or London is expensive, but nearby sea-floor is cheap. More than half the world’s population lives within 120 miles (192km) of the sea. Ben Cutler, the engineer in charge of the project, says submarine data-centres could be co-located with offshore wind farms as “anchor” customers. The cylinder fits in a standard shipping container, so could be deployed to remote places like islands, or even disaster areas to support relief efforts.

Excerpts from Cloud computing: Davy Jones’s data-center, Economist, Sept. 19, 2020

Black Operations are Getting Blacker: US Military

Heterogeneous Collaborative Unmanned Systems (HCUS), as these drones will be known, would be dropped off by either a manned submarine or one of the navy’s big new Orca robot submersibles.

Logo for Orca Submarine by Lockheed Martin

They could be delivered individually, but will more often be part of a collective system called an encapsulated payload. Such a system will then release small underwater vehicles able to identify ships and submarines by their acoustic signatures, and also aerial drones similar to the BlackWing reconnaissance drones already flown from certain naval vessels.

BlackWing

Once the initial intelligence these drones collect has been analysed, a payload’s operators will be in a position to relay further orders. They could, for example, send aerial drones ashore to drop off solar-powered ground sensors at specified points. These sensors, typically disguised as rocks, will send back the data they collect via drones of the sort that dropped them off. Some will have cameras or microphones, others seismometers which detect the vibrations of ground vehicles, while others still intercept radio traffic or Wi-Fi.

Lockheed Martin Ground Sensor Disguised as Rock

HCUS will also be capable of what are described as “limited offensive effects”. Small drones like BlackWing can be fitted with warheads powerful enough to destroy an SUV or a pickup truck. Such drones are already used to assassinate the leaders of enemy forces. They might be deployed against fuel and ammunition stores, too.

Unmanned systems such as HCUS thus promise greatly to expand the scope of submarine-based spying and special operations. Drones are cheap, expendable and can be deployed with no risk of loss of personnel. They are also “deniable”. Even when a spy drone is captured it is hard to prove where it came from. Teams of robot spies and saboteurs launched from submarines, both manned and unmanned, could thus become an important feature of the black-ops of 21st-century warfare.

Excerpts from Submarine-launched drone platoons will soon be emerging from the sea: Clandestine Warfare, Economist, June 22, 2019

Nuclear Weapons Proliferation: the Race

As nuclear blasts go, North Korea’s first test in 2006 was small. The detonation of an underground device produced an explosive force well below one kiloton (less than a tenth of the size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945). Even so, the vibrations it caused were recorded half a world away in the centre of Africa. Advances in the sensitivity of seismic sensors and monitoring software are now good enough to distinguish between a distant nuclear detonation and, say, a building being demolished with conventional explosives, says Lassina Zerbo, head of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Test-Ban-Treaty Organisation (CTBTO), the international organisation that seeks to enforce the agreement ratified, so far, by 163 nations.

The CTBTO operates 170 seismic stations worldwide, 11 underwater hydroacoustic centres detecting sound waves in the oceans, 60 listening stations for atmospheric infrasound (low-frequency acoustic waves that can travel long distances) and 96 labs and radionuclide-sampling facilities. More sensors are being installed. Crucially, however, the optimal number for global coverage was recently reached. It is now impossible, reckons Dr Zerbo, to test even a small nuclear weapon in secret anywhere on Earth. And on top of that, the United States Air Force runs a detection network that includes satellites that can spot nuclear-weapons tests.

It is better, though, to discover a secret weapons programme before testing. Once a country has a nuclear bomb or two, there is not much other governments can do to stop it from making more, says Ilan Goldenberg, a former head of the Iran team at the Pentagon. Plenty of states want such capabilities. The Defence Science Board, an advisory body to the Pentagon, concluded in a report last year that the number of countries that might seek nuclear weapons is higher now than at any time since the cold war. Those states include Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-Arab rivals of Iran, which in July, after long and tortuous negotiations, signed a nuclear deal with America and other nations to restrict its nuclear activities, and to allow enhanced monitoring and inspection of its facilities.

As the technologies to unearth work on clandestine nuclear weapons become more diverse and more powerful, however, the odds of being detected are improving. Innovation is benefiting detection capabilities, says Ramesh Thakur, a former UN assistant secretary-general. The products under development range from spy software that sifts through electronic communications and financial transactions to new scanners that can detect even heavily shielded nuclear material….

Software used for this type of analysis include i2 Analyst’s Notebook from IBM, Palantir from a Californian firm of the same name, and ORA, which was developed with Pentagon funds at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania. ORA has crunched data on more than 30,000 nuclear experts’ work and institutional affiliations, research collaborations and academic publications, says Kathleen Carley, who leads the ORA work at Carnegie Mellon. Changes, such as a halt in publishing, can tell stories: scientists recruited into a weapons programme typically cannot publish freely. Greater insights appear when classified or publicly unavailable information is sifted too. Credit-card transactions can reveal that, say, a disproportionate number of doctors specialising in radiation poisoning are moving to the same area.

The software uses combinatorial mathematics, the analysis of combinations of discrete items, to score individuals on criteria including “centrality” (a person’s importance), “between-ness” (their access to others), and “degree” (the number of people they interact with). Network members with high between-ness and low degree tend to be central figures: they have access to lots of people, but like many senior figures may not interact with that many. Their removal messes things up for everybody. Five or more Iranian nuclear scientists assassinated in recent years—by Israel’s Mossad, some suspect—were no doubt chosen with help from such software, says Thomas Reed, a former secretary of the United States Air Force and co-author of “The Nuclear Express”, a history of proliferation.

Importantly, the software can also evaluate objects that might play a role in a nuclear programme. This is easier than it sounds, says a former analyst (who asked not to be named) at the Pentagon’s Central Command in Tampa, Florida. Ingredients for homemade conventional bombs and even biological weapons are available from many sources, but building nukes requires rare kit. The software can reveal a manageable number of “chokepoints” to monitor closely, he says. These include links, for instance, between the few firms that produce special ceramic composites for centrifuges and the handful of companies that process the material.

A number of countries, including Japan and Russia, use network analysis. Japan’s intelligence apparatus does so with help from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which assists in deciding which “dual use” items that might have both peaceful and military purposes should not be exported. Such work is tricky, says a member of the advisory board (who also asked not to be named) to the security council of the Russian Federation, a body chaired by Vladimir Putin. Individual items might seem innocent enough, he says, and things can be mislabelled.

Data sources are diverse, so the work takes time. Intelligence often coalesces after a ship has left port, so foreign authorities are sometimes asked to board and search, says Rose Gottemoeller, undersecretary for arms control at America’s State Department. The speed of analysis is increasing, however. Software that converts phone conversations into computer-readable text has been “extremely helpful”, says John Carlson, a former head of the Australian foreign ministry’s Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office.

Would-be nuclear states can also reduce their networks. North Korea helped to keep its centrifuge facility secret by using mostly black-market or domestically manufactured components. Iran is also indigenising its nuclear programme, which undermines what network analysis can reveal, says Alexander Montgomery, a political scientist at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Iran mines uranium domestically and has produced centrifuge rotors with carbon fibre, instead of importing special maraging steel which is usually required.

A big computer system to make sense of all this would help, says Miriam John, vice-chairman of the Pentagon’s Threat Reduction Advisory Committee. Which is why the Pentagon is building one, called Constellation. Dr John describes it as a “fusion engine” that merges all sorts of data. For instance, computers can comb through years of satellite photos and infra-red readings of buildings to detect changes that might reveal nuclear facilities. Constellation aims to increase the value of such nuggets of information by joining them with myriad other findings. For example, the whereabouts of nuclear engineers who have stopped teaching before retirement age become more interesting if those people now happen to live within commuting distance of a suspect building.

Yet photographs and temperature readings taken from satellites, even in low Earth orbit, only reveal so much. With help from North Korea, Syria disguised construction of a nuclear reactor by assembling it inside a building in which the floor had been lowered. From the outside the roof line appeared to be too low to house such a facility. To sidestep the need for a cooling tower, water pipes ran underground to a reservoir near a river. The concealment was so good the site was discovered not with remote sensing but only thanks to human intelligence, says Dr Tobey, the former National Security Council official. (Israel bombed the building in 2007 before it could be completed.)

Some chemical emissions, such as traces of hydrofluoric acid and fluorine, can escape from even well-built enrichment facilities and, with certain sensors, have been detectable from space for about a decade, says Mr Carlson, the Australian expert. But detecting signs of enrichment via radiation emissions requires using different sorts of devices and getting much closer to suspected sources.

The “beauty” of neutrons and alpha, beta and gamma radiation, is that the energy levels involved also reveal if the source is fit for a weapon, says Kai Vetter, a physicist at the University of California, Berkeley. But air absorbs enough radiation from uranium and plutonium bomb fuel to render today’s detectors mostly useless unless they are placed just a few dozen metres away. (Radiological material for a “dirty bomb” made with conventional explosives is detectable much farther away.) Lead shielding makes detection even harder. Not one of the more than 20 confirmed cases of trafficking in bomb-usable uranium or plutonium has been discovered by a detector’s alarm, says Elena Sokova, head of the Vienna Centre for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, a think-tank.

Ground-based detectors are becoming more sensitive….. Detectors still need to be close to whatever it is they are monitoring, which mostly restricts their use to transport nodes, such as ports and borders. The range the detectors operate over might stretch to about 100 metres in a decade or so, but this depends on uncertain advances in “active interrogation”—the bombardment of an object with high-energy neutrons or protons to produce other particles which are easier to pick up. One problem is that such detectors might harm stowaways hiding in cargo.

That risk has now been solved, claims Decision Sciences, a Californian company spun out of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in America. It uses 16,000 aluminium tubes containing a secret gas to record the trajectory of muons. These are charged particles created naturally in the atmosphere and which pass harmlessly through people and anything else in their path. However, materials deflect their path in different ways. By measuring their change in trajectory, a computer can identify, in just 90 seconds, plutonium and uranium as well as “drugs, tobacco, explosives, alcohol, people, fill in the blank”, says Jay Cohen, the company’s chief operating officer and a former chief of research for the United States Navy. The ability to unearth common contraband will make the machine’s $5m price tag more palatable for border officials. A prototype is being tested in Freeport, Bahamas.

Other groups are also working on muon detectors, some using technology developed for particle physics experiments at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. Another approach involves detecting neutrinos, which are produced by the sun and nuclear reactors, and seeing how they interact with other forms of matter. The NNSA and other organisations are backing the construction of a prototype device called WATCHMAN in an old salt mine (to shield it from cosmic rays and other interference) in Painesville, Ohio. It will be used to detect neutrinos from limited plutonium production at a nuclear power station 13km away. Such a system might have a 1,000km range, eventually. But even that means it would require a friendly neighbour to house such a facility on the borders of a country being monitored.

Once nuclear facilities have been discovered, declared or made available for inspection as part of a deal, like that signed with Iran, the job of checking what is going on falls to experts from the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The equipment available to them is improving, too. The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission has built a prototype hand-held spectrometer for determining if traces of uranium collected on a cotton swab and blasted with a laser emit a spectral signature that reveals enrichment beyond that allowed for generating electricity. Within three years it will provide an unprecedented ability to assess enrichment without shipping samples back to a lab, says Raoul Awad, director-general of security and safeguards at the commission.

Laser scanning can also reveal other signs of enrichment. A decade ago inspectors began scanning intricate centrifuge piping with surveying lasers. A change between visits can reveal any reconfiguration of the sort necessary for the higher levels of enrichment needed for bombmaking. Secret underground facilities might also be found by wheeling around new versions of ground-penetrating radar.

The remote monitoring of sites made available to inspectors is also getting better. Cameras used to record on videotape, which was prone to breaking—sometimes after less than three months’ use, says Julian Whichello, a former head of the IAEA’s surveillance unit. Today’s digital cameras last longer and they can be programmed to take additional pictures if any movement is detected or certain equipment is touched. Images are encrypted and stamped with sequential codes. If technicians at a monitored facility delete any pictures, the trickery will be noticed by software and the inspectors informed.

Such technology, however, only goes so far. The IAEA cannot inspect computers and countries can veto the use of some equipment. It does seem that inspectors sent to Iran will get access to Parchin, a site near Tehran where intelligence agencies say tests related to nuclear-weapons making took place. (Iran denies it has a military programme.) But even the best tech wizardry can only reveal so much when buildings have been demolished and earth moved, as in Parchin.

Could nuclear weapons be built in secret today? …. A senior American State Department counter-proliferation official (whose asked to remain anonymous), however, says that it is not impossible…Companies, including a General Electric consortium, are making progress enriching uranium with lasers . If this becomes practical, some worry that it might be possible to make the fuel for a nuclear bomb in smaller facilities with less fancy kit than centrifuges

Monitoring nuclear weapons: The nuke detectives, Economist Technology Quarterly, Sept. 5, 2015, at 10