Wednesday, February 06, 2008

There is no Cable Cut Conspiracy

Large parts of the Middle East has been cut off from the Internet due to a series of (five) cuts in undersea cables. There have been an explosion of conspiracy theories trying to explain this.

This highlights the human psychology of computer security: people are apt to see patterns where none exist. Outages in undersea cables are a common occurrence. They usually go unreported. However, once a major outage is reported, minor outages that would normally be ignored now become reported as well.

This is like "cancer clusters". Statistically, we know that cancer cases are not evenly distributed over the population, but will often cluster together. This is especially true if you get to draw a boundary around an area in order to highlight a cluster. It's like the birthday paradox: if you randomly choose boundaries, then you are unlikely to find a cluster more than three times the national average, but if you can carefully draw a boundary with the intention of including as many incidents as possible, then you can reach as high as ten times the national average. This means, for example, that we can find places where children's leukemia will be several times the national average for no particular reason other than statistical distribution. However, humans will insist upon a special reason, such as power-lines or chemicals. An underlying cause (like a chemical spill) will cause a cluster, but a cluster is rarely evidence of an underlying cause.

The five cable cuts in a row are likewise not evidence of wrongdoing. This is in the realm of normal statistics. This is not as unusual as it looks; it is not by itself evidence of wrongdoing. If there were wrongdoing, such as blowing up a cable with C4, then those repairing the cable are likely to report that the break looks unusual. They have reported nothing unusual about these breaks.

We can see this pattern in other subjects. A good example is global warming. Climate change is normal, and unusual weather events are normal. Even scientists who believe strongly in global warming know that such weather events have nothing to do with their theory. Yet, the popular media always draws the conclusion, and scientists are powerless to debunk this. You just can't stop people from tying the two together. I could make the claim that since global warming is supposed to cause more/stronger storms, and most cable cuts (such as the recent ones near Egypt) are caused by ship anchors dragging along the sea bottom during storms, and therefore this cut was therefore caused by global warming. That would be fallacious reasoning, but I'm sure most people would believe it.

If there is a conspiracy, chances are good that people wouldn't be able to figure it out. UFOlogists have long suspected that strange lights in the sky are from space aliens, and that the government is trying to cover up. However, we have since discovered that many of those lights were secret spy planes under development that the government was trying to cover up. There was indeed a conspiracy, just the wrong one.

One of the conspiracy theories is that the NSA (who owns their own nuclear sub) caused the faults in the cables in order to distract people while they install secret spy equipment. If the NSA is involved, then this specific conspiracy is unlikely to be true. Cable tapping is far more complicated than people imagine, and they are unlikely to cut multiple cables at once if they want to be secret about it.

If I were to come up with a conspiracy theory involving the NSA, I would suggest something different. I'd imagine that they had a high-value target that they desperately need to eavesdrop on, but cannot for some reason. Therefore, they would blow up the problematic cables to force the traffic to go across different cables that they can eavesdrop on. The cuts in Egypt caused a lot of Middle Easy traffic to be sent the long way around the world - through the United States.

Here is a better conspiracy: it was caused by former cyber-czar Richard Clarke. He wrote a fictional cyberthriller ("Breaking Point") that began with Russian terrorists blowing up transatlantic cables. I'm thinking that he got a subprime loan that is about to be foreclosed upon, so he cut a few undersea cables in order to drum up new sales for his book. Why did he choose mideast cables instead of the Atlantic cables his book describes? Easy: he didn't want to prevent Europeans from ordering his book on I submit to you that this conspiracy theory makes as much sense as any other, and that the government needs to locate Clarke quickly and interrogate him on the matter.

As a separate topic, we should note yet again that the Internet is more vulnerable to physical attacks than cyberattacks. When asked "How would you take down the Internet?", the most common response from cybersecurity experts has long been "well placed C4".

UPDATE 2008-02-06: This article at Wired further explains the non-conspiracy. It points out that there is a cable cut somewhere in the world every 3 days, and that an analysis of the cuts show no wrong doing.


Tom O'Leary said...

I agree, as much as I would love to jump aboard the cable cutting conspiracy ship.

Now, if efforts to fix the problems were delayed or complicated by some strange events/entities, then I might start thinking that something is amiss in the sea of international affairs.

Until then, shit happens.

James Stroud said...

If you are going to say

The five cable cuts in a row are likewise not evidence of wrongdoing. This is in the realm of normal statistics."

you would be wise to state what the normal statistics are and what the likelihood of these breaks are. You should also explain your methodology. My suggestion is not as a conspiracy theorist, but as someone who would like someone to make some rational calculations before claiming such.

Even scientists who believe strongly in global warming know that such weather events have nothing to do with their theory.

Try not to imply that scientists are motivated by a belief system. Scientists measure the temperature of the earth over time and conclude that the earth is warming because the change exceeds what can be rationally attributable to error. Careful scientists do not have a belief system as one might infer from your word choice.

George said...

"An underlying cause (like a chemical spill) will cause a cluster, but a cluster is rarely evidence of an underlying cause."

Absolutely! But it's a good excuse for a lawsuit.

JEBWebs said...

Before we all file this in the same drawer as Crown Prince Assassinations in Sarajevo . . . maybe we could take a look at the incidence of failure for the repeater hardware placed along the cables. Would be nice to see pictures of the cable ends as well.

Its a 'one picture' thing.

Tyler said...

Honestly Rob, your naiveté frightens me. Don't you see the most rational explanation? Global warming has heated up our earth, thus throwing the precariously balanced solar system out of wack and interfering with weather patterns on a foreign planet. Thus, the aliens who inhabit this planet have traveled to Earth and, with the blessing of Mr. Bush and his fascist dictatorship, cut the cables as a way of punishing the Middle East (whom the NSA has carefully fooled the aliens into believing is responsible for Global Warming.)

Hope this clears things up.

-El Fridlo

Unknown said...

it was the cloverfeild monster lol well hey cables bloops and satellites falling from the sky why not- chris

JEBWebs said...

Ok, so the conspiracy subscribers drew the incorrect conclusion about the five (5) cuts in the Middle East. It's wider spread than just this cluster of cuts. The point brought out clearly, "...a cable cut somewhere in the world every 3 days...". This indicates it is not a regional event but a well coordinated world wide effort to disrupt global communications.

It's all much clearer now, thanks!

Will be ready to believe immediately after the results of the water boarding are reviewed by the independent panel.

Hmmmm . . . now where did I leave my neoprene suit and my double talk interpreter?