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Undersea Cables

Volume 789: debated on Thursday 8 March 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they are taking to improve the security of undersea cables linking the United Kingdom with the United States and other countries.

My Lords, submarine fibre optic cables play an essential role in the ecosystem of a successful internet-based economy. That is why, as part of our programme to protect the UK’s communication infrastructure, the DCMS is working closely with industry to improve the security and resilience of the UK’s submarine cable network. This includes assessing the physical, personnel, and cyber risk to subsea cables, and offering recommendations to cable operators to mitigate them.

My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister for that Answer. I think his department has got some way to go, though. He may recall that, about a month ago, a journalist from the Sunday Times walked into a farmhouse in Cornwall through an open door and photographed all the connections to one of the main submarine cables. Last summer, a ship dropped its anchor on a cable between the Isles of Scilly and the mainland and cut the cable, and nobody has bothered to prosecute it. Will he explain whether the Government really are taking seriously the issue of security on these cables, and what will they do ensure that the two instances I have just exemplified will not happen again?

The noble Lord raises an important point. As far at the Sunday Times report is concerned, I can say that the reporter was unable to access any secure section of the facility. The essential point about this is that there is resilience in the system. There are 11 landing sites, for example, for transatlantic cables, in different places. Because of the resilience of the system, when one particular cable is broken the system continues. As far as prosecution is concerned, most of the breaks in the cables—and there are a considerable number each year; about 30 to 40 each year—are as the result of accidents. That is why it is not normally necessary to prosecute. However, these are civil actions because the cables belong to individual companies. It is up to them to seek damages.

My Lords, the DCMS is a wondrous part of our governing system; within it, so many amazing things come together for consideration. I had not realised until looking at this Question that 97% of global communications come via cables, when I had fondly imagined that satellites took up a lot more than that. But my question is to ask why a Question that relates to security is being handled by the DCMS at all. I have come to enjoy the company of the Minister and to admire his competence across such a wide range of fields of interest, but perhaps he can reassure the House that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport will indeed be in the closest possible relationship to the Department of Defense to reassure us on the questions of security as maintained in this Question.

My Lords, I am speechless. The reason why DCMS is answering this Question is that we are responsible for co-ordinating the resilience of the telecoms sector in the UK. Telecoms is one of the UK’s 13 critical sectors and we are in close touch with other departments, particularly the Home Office, which is responsible for GCHQ, and the Ministry of Defence. I am not the only Minister who has answered on this; in December my noble friend Lord Howe answered a similar Question.

My Lords, is it also not worth remembering that we are building up a substantial system of undersea electricity cables as well—interconnectors with other countries, up to about 15 gigawatts, which are a major part of our daily supply of power? This issue therefore becomes doubly or trebly important when it comes to the security of that kind of undersea cable as well.

There are many things on the seabed, not only electricity and fibre-optic cables but pipelines as well. The National Security Council looks at all these threats to our infrastructure, and we advise all the parts of the infrastructure estate regularly and keep an eye on all of it.

My Lords, the Minister was right in saying that there is resilience in the system, and he pointed out that the system is owned by a disparate group of business people. In the event that there is a successful attack on some elements of the transatlantic bandwidth, what plans are now being put in place to deliver that bandwidth to the most important traffic that has to happen? In other words, it is all very well having resilience, but if that resilience is not available for the most important transactions then it is no good. What plans are being put in place to ensure that that response would be available?

That is a good point. It is not just transatlantic cables that are important here; the Policy Exchange report gives examples of other areas in the world where cables have broken. I am not going to say exactly what the mitigation measures are but that is what the national risk assessment is for, and the National Security Council looks at that.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that we first became very concerned about our cables in the 1970s; indeed, we built HMS “Challenger” at great cost to work on these cables and look at where there had been attacks and what had been done. We got rid of her when the Cold War stopped. The Russians have now started investing very heavily in nuclear submarines that can go deep and carry out attacks on these cables. At the end of the Cold War we had probably the best antisubmarine warfare and undersea warfare capability in the world, but that has slowly been eroded. What are we planning to do to look at the cables that are in deep water? The Type 26 programme is late and slow, with only a small number of ships coming, while the MPAs are still not with us. What are we doing to have ships and platforms that will enable us to go and check these lines, repair them and do the necessary work?

As far as repairing them is concerned, the individual companies are responsible for that. The noble Lord asked roughly the same question in December last year, and my noble friend said that, although he could not go into details about the UK’s antisubmarine capability, any threat to the UK infrastructure is taken extremely seriously. Nowadays it is not just submarines, of course; any so-called civilian vessel that can have drones on board can do the same. The main defence is resilience and lots of different cables, because there are just over half a million miles of cable to monitor in the world.