Cyber Espionage in the Ocean Depths: US Suspects China of Stealing Data Through Undersea Internet Cables

Senior US officials have issued caution to American telecommunication companies regarding possible threats from Chinese vessels involved in repairing underwater internet cables in the Pacific Ocean. The warning specifically targets the state-run Chinese company SB Submarine Systems, whose ships have been reported to mysteriously go off radar for extended periods near strategically significant submarine network cables.

According to American officials, the peculiar disappearances could be signs of covert attempts to tamper with fiber-optic lines that carry the majority of global internet traffic, including sensitive information and data belonging to the US government. As reported by The Wall Street Journal, ships like Fu Hai, Fu Tai, and Bold Maverick, have recurrently vanished from satellite tracking services for days on end while operating off the coasts of countries such as Taiwan and Indonesia among others.

Despite major technology companies, like Google and Meta, investing billions into new trans-Pacific internet cables, they still depend on third-party firms for maintenance and repair. However, some of these firms fall under the control of Chinese state-run structures, potentially posing a national security threat. For instance, SB Submarine Systems is 51% owned by the state-run company China Telecom and is part of a regional consortium responsible for undersea cable repair.

The White House’s concern intensifies in light of China’s rapid militarization in the Asia-Pacific region. Intelligence reports indicate Beijing is steadily increasing its ability to disrupt US communications in case of conflicts over territories such as Taiwan. US intelligence has been warning of potential threats to the integrity of underwater cables for years, noting that “industry consortia that service the cables could present a vulnerability” from insider threats.

Besides potential cyber espionage and sabotage, Chinese repair vessels could secretly map the ocean floor to locate the US’s confidential military communication lines. Washington has already sanctioned several Chinese high-tech companies, accusing them of espionage and ties to the Chinese military. Now, marine cable vessels like SB Submarine Systems are in the crosshairs.

Although not all major US digital corporations currently share the White House’s concern, the controversy over Chinese repair vessels could lead to another escalation in the ongoing trade war between Washington and Beijing.

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