Look to the sea for the internet, not the clouds

Our connection to the internet seems so ethereal –it’s as though data materializes out of thin air. This illusion is a result of the final hop of our connection to the internet.

image: palam.ca

I find the illusion compelling, especially when it comes to travel outside of Canada. Before the internet was readily available, I would travel with a short wave radio and string up an antenna to get news over the airwaves from home.

Now my computer substitutes for my short wave radio and the internet substitutes for the airwaves. I listen to thousands of radio stations around the world on my computer with no fading in and out. It’s easy to think of the internet as a medium of the air.

The notion of our data being in the “cloud” furthers that illusion. But, in fact, the cloud couldn’t be more grounded. The servers that provide data storage exist in concrete bunkers around the world. One of them is on Bunker Road in Kamloops. It’s owned by Q9, a Canadian company running data centres across the country.

“There is no cloud,” says Nicole Starosielski, author of The Undersea Network and adds:

“The cloud is in the ocean. It’s on the bottom of the sea floor. It goes through deep sea trenches. It goes through reefs amongst fish. It’s subject to undersea landslides. That’s where the internet is,” she told CBC Radio’s Spark. “The only time that the internet really is in the air is in that last hop when it goes from your router to your computer or from a cell tower to your phone.”

A casual looks a globe affirms that notion: seventy per cent is covered by water. Even then, considering the expense of laying cables, I would have thought that satellites carry most data. It turns out that satellites carry only a small fraction of what undersea cables do.

The fibre-optic cables that carry data though the deepest ocean trenches are fragile: only the size of a garden hose. There are about 300 cable systems that make up the backbone of the internet. And because they go from one country to another though international waters, they’re difficult to protect. If a fishing ship drops anchor on a cable, they wouldn’t even know the havoc they wreak.

The U.S. is protected by redundancy but smaller countries, especially island nations like Tahiti, are connected by just a single cable. So, if it is damaged, the internet for the whole country goes down. Despite the growing importance of the internet, the internet is surprisingly delicate.

However, it’s not fragile for wealthy countries that have multiple undersea connections. Wealth plays into the location of the cables. Cables are laid in places that are economically preferable or where they’ve been laid before.

Politics also plays a role. When Google planned to lay a cable directly between the U.S. and Hong Kong, the U.S. Justice Department vetoed it because of the dispute with China and Huawei.

Our concept of the internet matters. When you consider that the world’s servers emit as much CO2 as the airline industry, it brings the internet down to earth –and to the oceans.

 

Threat from Huawei gear is overblown

All nations spy on each other and they don’t need Huawei equipment to do so.

image; Medium.com

The U.S. has targeted the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei for potential spy software installed on their equipment called “backdoors.”

This strikes some experts as highly unlikely:

“But security experts say the U.S. government is likely exaggerating that threat. Not only is the U.S. case short on specifics, they say, it glosses over the fact that the Chinese don’t need secret access to Huawei routers to infiltrate global networks that already have notoriously poor security (Globe and Mail, February 28, 2019).”

China doesn’t need Huawei’s gear to spy. Last October the state-owned telecommunications company China Telecom systematically diverted internet traffic in Canada and the United States by shunting it through its own network. The internet access points had been legally set up by China Telecom, ostensibly to improve service for its customers. Not only were the access points legal but so was the diversion of internet traffic: signed accords with the U.S. didn’t prohibit it.

China doesn’t even need the internet. Chinese scientists associated with the military have been collaborating with Canadian universities on projects that could have military applications including: drone aerodynamics at the University of British Columbia, mobile sensing and computer vision at the University of Waterloo, and satellite navigation at the University of Calgary.

Universities don’t see anything wrong with the collaborations which, after all, benefit science. Universities say it is the responsibility of the federal government to decide which foreign researchers can enter the country, not them.

The U.S. government doesn’t need Huawei’s gear to spy. Through the Patriot Act, the government has rights to access information in the cloud: data stored on U.S. servers such as Gmail, Dropbox, Google drive, iCloud drive, OneDrive, -just to name some on my computer. The Patriot Act ostensibly targets terrorist groups but could target anyone, including Canadians who use the cloud. And U.S. cloud providers are prevented from telling you if your data is being accessed. An estimated 90 per cent of Canadian internet traffic is routed via the US.

Canada has responded with privacy laws. British Columbia’s Personal Information Protection Act prevents public bodies from storing data on servers outside of Canada. That includes email servers at Canadian universities. The only email I have that is not through U.S. servers is my Thompson Rivers University account.

Canada doesn’t need doesn’t need Huawei’s gear to spy. University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist revealed that in 2011 that nine of Canada’s major telecom providers and social media sites received 1.2 million data requests from government agencies. The companies complied in 784,756 of those cases. The total number is likely higher.

Even without the Patriot Act in Canada, the Canadian government has very similar powers to those of the U.S. government. The Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) cooperates closely with its counterparts in other countries and operates with very little government oversight.

The real source of the U.S. government’s attempt to ban Huawei is not security, it’s financial and political. Huawei is successfully crowding U.S. manufacturers out of global markets and the U.S. will play the scare card if it thinks it will win.