The Internet connects the world as never before. When you're looking at European websites or chatting with family on vacation in Southeast Asia, it seems like the Internet blankets the entire Earth.
However, the Internet actually relies on a small number of undersea cables to link continents. If they get damaged or cut, it can slow down Internet speed worldwide, or even knock entire countries offline. This happens fairly regularly thanks to accidental collisions with the nets of fishing vessels, anchors of other ships, underwater rocks and even from sharks. However, those incidents usually happen one cable at a time and they're relatively easy to repair; what if someone did it deliberately?
That's the worry of the American military. Recently, Russian submarines and spy ships have spent a lot of time around undersea cables in the Atlantic, North Sea and Asia.
Analysts are worried that in a war situation the Russians will try to cut the cables at extreme depths where it's nearly impossible to repair them. Not only would a major Internet disruption hurt the financial markets, it could hurt communication between the U.S. and its overseas allies at a critical moment.
Aside from the potential tactical advantage, there are a few other reasons the Russians could be cruising the cable network. One of those is eavesdropping.
It's long been known that countries, especially America, use submarines to tap into underseas cables to eavesdrop on communications. In fact, according to the New York Times, it started in 1971 when an American sub called the Halibut tapped into a cable north of Japan used by Russian nuclear forces and successfully stole important secrets.
Some military analysts say that Russia could also be scouting for secret U.S. military cables that aren't on any of the official maps. Tapping into one of these, or even cutting them, could give Russia a serious edge in a future conflict.
Curious about the undersea cable network? We've covered it before in this fascinating video report, and there's an interesting website that lets you see the state of the network over time.